In an Asian country a young man was filling in an application form. The Bible College he was applying to required him to answer all the usual questions, and then at the end of the form he was invited to write about himself; ie to share anything that he thought would help the college understand who he was.
He wrote about all his relationships – who his father and mother were, his grandparents, his siblings, his aunts and uncles and cousins. Then at the end he wrote triumphantly, ‘Now you know all about me!’
He didn’t write about his achievements, interests or views. He didn’t mention what he watched, listened to, or read. He saw himself as primarily being a person whose life was made up of relationships.
Losing our kinship
In the West we are losing that sense of connectedness. That wasn’t always the case. A few generations back, people tended to socialise in families – in small towns particularly, where families were large, people lived close to each other, and transport was limited. Guests at a wedding were likely to be family members, with maybe some neighbours and close friends of the parents.
I remember being really struck by the way in which my uncle (who was the youngest of ten children) proposed to his future wife: “How would you like to join the family?” he said.
People belonged in families, for good or for ill. They did belong to wider communities and knew who each other was, and belonged to community groups, but they largely socialised with family members.
I remember when I was 15 going to a 75th birthday celebration for my grandmother. It was a good opportunity for a family get together, and with her large house running over with assorted cousins, uncles and aunts, it was a great occasion. The banter and bonhomie were marked, as her many offspring sparked off each other and simply enjoyed being together. The occasion gave me a strong sense of family, and of belonging to this particular family, which has always remained with me.
The dark side of family togetherness
Family life wasn’t always rosy though. Sometimes the youngest didn’t know their older siblings because they had already left home by the time the younger ones had grown a little. In large families not everyone got on with each other.
My father-in-law fell out with his brother, with whom he was in a building partnership, and the two never reconciled. This meant that this branch of the family, who had a number of cousins of a similar age to my husband, never got together even though they lived in the same town. My husband, as an only child, missed out.
Because families were more private, what happened in the family, usually stayed in the family. Growing up, I was unaware of the domestic violence in the neighbour’s family across the paddock. The husband’s drinking problem would lead to violence towards his wife – and one evening the beating was so bad the wife came running to my parents’ doorstep. My parents took her in, and eventually helped her and her little daughter to move elsewhere. It was a major step then to move away from a family, not only because of the lack of financial assistance, but also because of the stigma.
Family links today
Today it’s a different world - for Pakeha anyway. (Maori and Pasifika, and other cultures too, still have a strong sense of family, of whanau.) Smaller families, greater mobility, an individualistic mind-set, may all lead to a flimsier sense of family – and therefore of the self. It’s easier for people to move away from family if family life breaks down.
The stability of society a few generations ago has gone. (Growing up, I knew only one person in our small town who was divorced.) Now, there are innumerable articles and blogs expressing advice or opinions on how to blend families, how to make a divorce easier for children, how to relate to his ex or her ex, especially if there are children involved, and how to manage the logistics when children live in two households. And often there’s no time, or it’s just too hard, to maintain former kinship connections with grandparents, cousins, etc.
As a result, that sense of a wider belonging to family that I knew, is not possible for many children and young people today.
Looking for a family
If people don’t have a family to belong to, they may spend their lives searching for one – or find a substitute. (Gangs can be family for their patched members.) Some relish a prized independence which may lead to such loneliness that they make do with a pseudo-community; perhaps the shallow togetherness of frequenting a bar with strangers, or hooking up on a Tinder date, or buying sex - where ever there’s a superficial form of connectedness.
When families let us down, when there’s no family, or relationships in families are awry, then that has a deep impact on the self, whether it’s an adult or child.
We were made for relationship. God put us in families. The Psalmist says, ‘He puts the solitary in families.’ (I have seen some wonderful examples of where a single woman has become part of another family at church, in a way that enhances life for both her, and for the family.)
God knows we need human connectedness, and there are enough studies done to show that people who don’t have good human connections suffer mentally, physically and spiritually.
To know we belong to God is utterly crucial to our understanding of who we are. But to know we belong in a family is also fundamental. When we can describe who we are in these terms, then we can also say, “Now you know all about me!”
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.