Late last year, my 93-year-old stepfather passed away. My wife and I drove 7 hours to be at the funeral, then drove back home the next day. Before I left, I complained inwardly about the long trip and the interruption of my life routine. 36 hours later I couldn’t relate with that complaint. I returned home refreshed, grateful, inspired. One day with the 20-plus members of our blended family, some of whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years, revitalized my faith in that love which transcends all differences.
Family. We use that word to mean many things. We might, of course, be speaking of our biological family. So much begins there, even our nurturing and growth into the most basic identity of individual begins with family. As a child, we’re fully dependent on our biological family. But as we develop and become independent, the nature of family changes for us. It begins to expand. We begin to include friends, even if more loosely, in our concept of family. From there, colleagues within communities of personal or professional interest to us are often embraced as family. And while this is going on we are moving into a state of interdependence. Author Stephen Covey wrote extensively about what he referred to as the three stages of maturity– dependence, independence, and interdependence. In a March 2009 blog post, he wrote,
Much of our world is gripped with a sense of fear and insecurity—fear of losing jobs, homes, or our future. In such a state of insecurity and vulnerability, it is easy to see why people might resign to being in survival mode and looking out only for themselves, at home, at work or in the community. In this environment people tend to respond by being more and more independent. The mindset becomes: “I’m going to focus on ‘me and mine.’
Certainly, independence is vital; however, the problem is that we live in an interdependent reality. Our most important work, the problems we hope to solve or the opportunities we hope to realize require working and collaborating with other people in a high-trust, synergistic way—whether at home or at work. Having an interdependent mindset, skills and tools are vital, especially now as we work through challenges unlike anything most of us have ever seen in our life time.
You might say that thinking of someone as family is to assume a certain level of trust and empathy with them. It does not mean to agree with them as a matter of course. Family members often disagree. But family bonds survive because members cut each other slack. The relationship is more important than any one issue, as longs as the trust and empathy remain mutual. In contrast, when an individual violates that trust and empathy over and over, they become estranged from the family, not necessarily through any group decision against them but simply because their concept of family has become corrupted or abandoned. They’re not in the family because they are not acting family-like.
We live in an “interdependent reality,” as Dr. Covey says. When we fight against that reality, we lose. And today, social media has powered an illusion that speaking out against this and that is some kind of substitute for, or higher level of, community. When Facebook was new, I felt like my community had been expanded. I know many felt the same. Expanded, even unlimited community has always been part of the Facebook sales pitch. But in time, that feeling left me. Facebook and other social tools are useful and powerful, but they do not automatically expand our experience of community as we add friends. They simply increase the traffic in our lives, and along with it, the social media version of road rage. The need to speak against something, anything, everything seems to be epidemic. And social media algorithms simply feed us a steady diet of that which we already believe in or are inclined toward, further eroding our ability to listen and consider. Of course, there is plenty to speak out against. But how often do we pause to consider how many of our problems are rooted in a lack of interdependence, in a highly constricted sense of family? For example, most of us can see the wrongness of exclusionary identification with one race, but we seem to think it is perfectly fine to think of blood relatives as a special select and impenetrable group. I would argue that once we allow ourselves to accept that kind of viewpoint in any part of our lives, we open a Pandora’s Box of us-and-them thinking.
I don’t mean to imply that our sense of family should be diluted. On the contrary, I think we come into a much more powerful experience of family when we focus on that interdependent mindset that Dr. Covey spoke about above. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone speak about longing for a more trust-based environment at their workplace or for an about-face in our conflict-ridden geopolitics. And with every additional retread of another failed blame-based approach to solving these things, I find myself thinking on the simple and sweet feeling of that day with family after the funeral. When our families first came together there were challenges. We were different in many ways. But time has diluted the differences and taught us the deeper meaning of family. And it’s a lesson that our world needs now more than ever. Again, from Stephen Covey —
Family itself is a “we” experience, a “we” mentality. And admittedly, the movement from “me” to “we”—from independence to interdependence—is perhaps one of the most challenging and difficult aspects of family life.
A “we” mentality grounds the search for any real solution to problems born of fear and misunderstanding. And I’m not sure there’s a problem out there that doesn’t claim one or both of those parents. Thomas Paine had a glimpse of the truth of it all when he wrote, “The World is my country, mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
Interdependence is a our natural state, as a planet. So much of nature shows us that. And universal languages such as art, dance, and music help us connect and relate, as a people. We should cherish those gifts as essentials to life and realize that, however enticing the social media platforms and 24/7 mobile content streams might be, they are only delivery mechanisms. Family requires something more. It requires us to listen, to feel, to have skin in the game. It also requires us to have vision, patience, and humility. And it requires a common language. As a musician I’ve seen that happen in performance among musicians and audience members when people without a shared language are equally moved by the music and share that common experience without the help of words.
There is plenty in our world to fear and worry over. We are spoon fed it every day by commercial media seeking the quickest way to capture our attention, and by forces seeking to herd opinions this way and that. But there is so much good flying right underneath that noise, and as we chose to give our attention to it, to celebrate it and join in, we reclaim some of our natural interdependence.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find out we’re family.