I didn’t grow up with family dinners.
All of us did our own thing for the most part. There were brief periods where our parents would try to get us to regularly eat together, but it never became “what we did.” As a result, family time (and a lot of the sentimentality around family) never really seemed important to me when I was young. When people started posting emotional captions and statuses for siblings’ or parents’ birthdays, I never really “got” it. I really didn’t get it when people talked about their parents being their best friends.
(That one still seems weird to me, to be honest.)
It wasn’t until recently that I experienced first-hand how families can be so vital to our individual development—and help us to stop seeing our lives as isolated blips in vast sea of people. Today’s blog is about how families give our lives context.
For historians and scholars, context is the key to meaning. It’s the story, the binding that holds all the anecdotes and ideas together into a coherent Thing. Context, like family, makes sense of one piece by showing its place among the whole. Like context, our families show us what part of our lives is part of an ongoing trend, and what part of who we are is the breaking of that trend. Knowing how we’re alike and unique among our immediate family provides us with a fuller understanding of who we are—and who we could be in the future, for better or worse.
Context Gives Us History
A few months ago, my aunt commented on one of the essays I posted. “I didn’t know you could write!” she said. “Another writer in the family!”
I found that a little grating at first. My work was mine, I thought to myself. It’s not as though anyone in my family had sat down and told me I should be a writer. Barely anyone knew that I wrote professionally, much less vocationally. It was also a little confusing—as far as I understood, my grandmother was a novelist, but that was never part of our family ’story.’ And it wasn’t until fairly recently that she devoted herself to the writing practice, at least as far as I knew. But I learned later that there was more to it. (I also learned that my aunt was a writer too.)
Once, I brought up to my grandfather that I was flirting with the idea of journalism as a hobby. He told me that my great-great-grandmother was allegedly one of the first female beat reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her father was also a lifelong reporter in the Bay Area. I had never heard that before, but that piece of information recast my interest in journalism in a new light. I wasn’t some aberration in my family—my love for the written word, for moving people with nothing but verbs and nouns and phrases in the right order, was a generational gift. I was part of a pattern.
That’s what I mean when I say that family gives us history. What looks like an aberration reveals itself to be part of a larger pattern. What is assumed to be a long-time part of your family’s history is actually a recent development. Our foibles, our struggles, and our advantages are understood more fully when we know our history beyond ourselves. That’s one reason why knowing and understanding our family is key to understanding who we are.
Context Gives Us Trajectory
Understanding where my family came from helps me understand where I am. But seeing the gap between the two points—where my family is today and where we started—allows me to see something else: where we could be headed.
Here’s what I mean:
My maternal grandfather grew up in the rural provinces of the Philippines. As a child, he started making a living through cock fights, bought a gas station as a young man, and eventually headed up a large contracting business during the waning years of the Marcos dictatorship—a period of harsh, autocratic repression. The man lived a large portion of his life fabulously wealthy. My mom remembers how they used to do family vacations in New York or Boston, Lolo (“Grandpa” in Tagalog) dropping $10,000 in a weekend in the middle of the 1980s. He employed a full staff of servants and a driver. He eventually lost it all, but not before granting each of his children the opportunity to live anywhere they wanted. Of the 7 of them, 6 chose America.
Today, I work at an Internet marketing company. My desk is an automated standing desk, and I create value in an economy that didn’t exist 5 years ago (and will likely not exist in 5 years). My work is intangible, electronic, valuable only because it is mutually agreed upon that what I do is valuable through several layers of buyers and sellers. I live in an apartment in a suburb in California.
My grandfather grew up in little more than a hut in a tropical island thousands of miles from here. These are the violent shifts in fate that knowing my family history has taught me—the fickleness of wealth, the ability of life to plant us far from where we think we’ll go. Where will my grandchildren be when I’m dead? What will they do? What am I doing now that will make them pause and evaluate themselves?
Excuse my musings.
I’ve seen the very best of what financial stability provided my mother’s generation—and frankly, I’ve seen the worst of it too. I’ve seen what happens when we compromise ourselves for the sake of being rich, and it’s a story I dare not repeat in my lifetime. I’ve also seen the truth of wealth: without wisdom and without accountability, it doesn’t last. Even with those things, it may not last. The story of my family helps me understand what my future may hold—or at least to understand that it may hold something I could never predict.
Context Gives Us Narrative
Knowing our family history gives us keys to open up our past and learn what it says about our present. Knowing it gives us a way of looking at our past and present and projecting forward to the future. Altogether, that gives us something far more profound than its parts: a story.
Narrative is our primary tool of finding meaning and order in the world. Narrative lends us a way of looking at events and tying them together in meaning, in substance, and in sequence. It’s our way of making sense of things—and context is key to deepening our understanding of the events that precede our lives and proceed out of our lives. In other words, knowing our family history helps us make sense of what we do, who we are, and where we’re going.
I can’t help but think of Bojack Horseman Season 4. After a few seasons of getting to know Bojack, a washed-up 90s sitcom actor and barely-functional alcoholic, we get a string of episodes about his family history. (Spoiler alert!) We learn that his grandmother never got over her grief at the untimely death of her brother (whom Bojack had never heard of). Her grief triggered a series of events that left Bojack’s mom deeply traumatized, finally creating the context for Bojack’s pain.
Note: it’s an intensely emotional show despite being about a cartoon horse.
Bojack’s unresolved wounds had its roots in the death of a great-uncle he never met and will likely never discover. Whatever hope he has of understanding himself in the context of family history is gone. Without a narrative, his pain looks and feels singular and inescapable when that’s far from the truth.
Wrapping It Up
It’s easy to see ourselves as the final product of our family—as though history brought itself to a conclusion, and that conclusion is me. Or you. We resist seeing ourselves as links in a chain, the middle chapters of a long and meandering book. There’s no shame in being a middle chapter, though. There’s power in being part of a story, in becoming part of what connects the past to the future.
Without context, we see ourselves as heroes and endpoints…but that point of view is deeply lonely. The meaning is ultimately shallow because it begins and ends with us. Narcissists might think they’re happy with being the center of their own lives while remaining oblivious to the real reward of a life well lived: community, both physically in the present and throughout time.
One of my favorite moments from Making Things Right, a meditation on craftsmanship from Norwegian carpenter Ole Thorstensen, is his description of what it’s like to work on an old house. You end up building on top of the craftsmanship of the laborers who came before you, and it makes you realize that your work will be built upon by the laborers who come after you. Together, the people who build and remodel a house stand together as a community spaced throughout time—this is what bonds them all.
So it is with family.