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Family Obligation

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In Canada we start the family obligation of the holiday season a lot earlier than our neighbours to the South. This last weekend was our version of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and while it doesn’t start the official opening of the panic before Christmas, it does mark the beginning of the long descent into family hell.

Does that sound a wee bit bitter? Could be because it is. I’m not saying there aren’t families who genuinely enjoy each other’s company and look forward to the times they get together as a single unit. However, isn’t it about time we acknowledge there are an equal number who would sooner skinny dip with piranhas than spend “quality time” with their families?

Why do we consider the family unit so sacred in the first place? True, there are other examples in the animal kingdom of families staying together: prides of lions, wolf packs, and troops of the great apes and monkeys are either made up of family groups or are a family unto themselves, but that’s largely due to their need for safety in numbers and the ease of hunting.

Humans on the other hand don’t stay together as a physical unit after a certain age, but are expected to still recognise an obligation to those of the same bloodline. Somehow or other, because somebody was responsible for bringing us into the world, we’re told our lives are irrevocably connected. Children may have left home ages ago, but still are at the beck and call of parents as if they still live at home.

Independence is primarily an illusion of space within the family unit as every decision taken by one member is second-guessed or analysed by the rest. If you’re the parent, the children will wonder if there is something wrong with you if act differently from the way they think a parent is supposed to act. A child can’t make a career choice or pick a romantic partner without everybody within the family feeling justified in passing judgment.

Depending on the moral and religious code that a family follows, the approval or disapproval of the family over a person’s choices can be grounds for disagreement – or worse, control of a person’s life completely. Supposed adults are still told whom they can marry, what they are allowed to wear, and what they should be doing with their lives.

All of this is supposedly being done with our “best interests at heart,” but in reality, whose best interests are being expressed? If a person within a family unit decides he or she would like to go to university when no one else in the family has graduated from high school, how is anybody going to be able to understand that person’s ambition?

There is a really good chance they won’t be able to understand the desire to receive an education just for the sake of learning, and will see it only as a waste of time because they don’t see a job at the end of the line. Their response to that person will be couched in those terms, and little or no attempt will be made to appreciate their ambitions because it doesn’t fit within their body of experience.

Families are like any society in that they are geared to the lowest common denominator so that those in charge don’t feel like their authority is being tested or challenged. In fact, there are quite a number of ways in which the family is merely a microcosm of the society around them.

Notice how it is set up along the lines of the chain of command within most religious bodies: a patriarch who makes all the final decisions; a matriarch who is supposed to nurture everybody as well as create life; and the kids who are supposed to grow up to reprise the roles of their parents. The problem is that nobody is screening people to see if they’re qualified to fill those positions.

Just because you’re a man doesn’t automatically give you any magical ability to be fair and impartial, let alone wise enough to make decisions that will affect another person’s life forever. Believe or not, there are actually women who are not suited to be mothers and who ought not be allowed within a hundred miles of anybody requiring a little unconditional love.

None of that is important to those who hotly defend the concept of family we are living with right now. For them it is about the ability to control a person’s behaviour. By making claims as spurious as “the family is the backbone of our nation,” they give unwarranted power to the father who then is able to exert control over the rest of the family and ensure they play by the rules set out by society. It’s in their best interest, after all, as it gives them their own personal fiefdom to rule over in much the same way as the divine right given to Kings in days gone by.

When people talk of love in these families, they are really speaking of duty and obligation. When they talk of responsibility, they are really talking about emotional blackmail and the power of guilt. How else would you describe a system where a person can say, “Do this for me because of who I am in relation to you”? There’s no talk of earning respect, only that it’s due – no matter how badly somebody behaves.

At holidays like the one that just passed in Canada, people are obligated to go and visit with people they may not want to have anything to do with. Is it any wonder that so many family events end up with people getting far too drunk and arguing? Resentment, booze, and unhappiness are a volatile mix, and it doesn’t take much to spark that fire.

Both the holiday season and election season are upon us on both sides of the 49th parallel these days. That’s a mixture guaranteeing we’re going to hear quite a lot of bullshit about families from advertising executives, politicians, and religious leaders. The next time you hear that sort of drivel coming from a sanctimonious mouth, think about the families you know, even your own, and compare their reality with the myth that’s being propagated.

It really makes you wonder what else they know nothing about, doesn’t it?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.