Welcome back, friends of critical thinking and individualism.
In this essay I am dissecting a biological and sociological term which I find to be redundant for the 21st century individual, and thus it needs to be put in it’s place. I am talking about the positive and negative sides of family structures from a sociological standpoint and pointing out some factors that are in dire need of redifining. However, my goal is to evolve from traditional structures, as I believe they do not work anymore in the 21st century.
The biological unit that makes out one’s roots usually consists of the home one comes from and grows up in, and the people that are present in that. So we begin with what is the basic definition of a family:
The function of this usually genetically connected unit is to produce offspring and grow economically and sociologically as a unit. Thus, the family will prosper.
However, families have been known to produce dysfunctional childhoods and to restrict and pervert perfectly potent youngins more often than not. As Debra Morgan so eloquently puts it in Dexter (Season 8, Episode 6): “Families fuck you up, it’s just what they do.”
Many writers explore the dissapointment of going back to their places of childhood and discovering that there is only an imprint of false sense of safety, security and idealised parent figures of a distorted past which, from the perspective of an adult, actually never existed. To name a few, Karl Ove Knausgaard speaks about this phenomenon in the first volume of My Struggle, Thomas Bernhard defines it as only finding a “yawning abyss of emptiness when going looking for one’s childhood” in Auslöschung, Ottessa Moshfegh’s name protagonist in Eileen speaks about the stolen potential of becoming someone better, if only her family hadn’t “fucked her up”. Milan Kundera’s Theresa in The unbearable lightness of being describes her mother’s abuse and the complete perversion of her self-image which she has to cure herself of later on in life, et cetera.
So, in light of these broken portraits, what is family really worth and why does the individual of our century still seek to build it in a traditional manner?
Let’s set up a scheme for typical motivation of human relationships and the interests they follow. Family can be connected to this scheme, but does not have to be:
1. What can you do for me? – the egoistic argument.
2. What can I do for you? – the altruistic or emotional argument. Often driven by fear or guilt
3. What can we do together for each other? – the pragmatical argument
As Houellebecq puts it (see my essay on his novels here), today’s western society has a me-thinking – while, for example, eastern society still has an us-thinking. Western sociologists such as Arnold Gehlen talk about this me-thinking, naming it an emancipation, mainly focusing on the obsolete status of marriages and the institution of marriage as a worth-giving factor in society. But shouldn’t family be also viewed as such in our culturally various, mixed, free, individualistic society?
So based on those pragmatical arguments a family can do something for you, it can give you a social fundament, education, the ability to build human connections and to funcion within a mini-society.
However, it can also disable or paralyse said abilities, or give an individual a completely perverted, disfigured idea of how communication should work, thus making it even more complicated to build those close human connections most of us so value.
The notion that a person is obliged to follow such traditional structures and maintain a relationship with his roots in our time is exactly as absurd as a person being obliged to stay in the city he or she is born with. Personal improvement, experiencing other cultures, and also evolving and changing one’s perspectives are important parts of human growth. Obviously one isn’t going to take his family on every holiday or cultural trip one takes. As per usual, an older generation still prefers the environment they grew up in, and will not thrive in a new environment, thus making it more logical for the new generation to relocate and explore the world.
Regarding abusive relationships and marriages, it is desirable and advisable to extract oneself from any bad situation and dissolve the relationship. Where is the line where abusive behavior and unaccepting attitudes towards a person can justify breaking communications with the Old World of Hometown?
The Family today’s individual should strive for consists of the people they encounter, who support their ambitions and choices. None of those aspects is connected to biological ties to other humans. There are plenty of loving parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles who are worth driving or flying home for, come Christmas time. But should one just shrug off the fact that the thought of those gatherings only makes one cringe and plot excuses to leave early? I believe not. There is always a choice.
I have the unusual privilege to experience both kinds of families. I openly indulge in regular contact with the one (of whom I am related to no one) and openly disagree to build relationships with the other (whose bloodline I am biologically connected to). Not everyone gets to openly see the effects on functional and disfunctional relationships and their adjacence to possible biological relations – and not everyone is aware enough to look, unfortunately.
The expansion of traditional coupling and the evolvment of gay marriage should be teaching us that a couple can be a family and have children with no genetical involvment whatsoever. This can be a great example in terms of evolvment in the traditional family structure.
To expand the aforementioned three questions scheme further, a student living in a household with five others for economical reasoning, to put it very simply: for the student, the living situation is made easier sociologically and economically, as it is the same for others who share that space. Friendships are forged and some remain after sharing the household, but the gist of a shared household in this context is to support each other during a certain time of one’s life when a certain kind of support is necessary. This is also a form of family, and doesn’t depend on emotional closeness of the individuals. Members of a biologically related family aren’t all individually emotionally close because they sleep in adjacent rooms.
So, to close, in my opinion, an individual of the 21st century needs to be open to change, to adapting the term family, to not be afraid to add to his or her family and at the same time, never be afraid to end certain relationships – even when they are attached to biologically related persons. Toxic relationships should be expelled from one’s life under any and all circumstances. Members of a family can be added, extracted, multiplied and removed.
Such should be our level sociological emancipation of traditional values in the 21st century. At least I, personally, want to be worthy of the time I live in.
I would love to hear your thoughts regarding my thoughts. There’s a lot I haven’t even touched upon in this essay, so also feel free to expand on the topic.