Family is Where We Live

(This is a piece that I wrote as a forward for a French book on family therapy called Les défis des familles d’aujourd’hui: Approche systémique des relations familiales in September 2020 thanks to Salvatore d’Amore)

Family is the blood tie, and the non-blood tie. Bound, unbound and always returning to the tension between coming and going, caring and abandoning, living and dying. Family is a time-boat that spins in a whirlpool of present, future and past. Ancestors sing and spit, unborn generations write their inspirational notes in treasures and traumas they will inherit. The days pass and it is family that is the soup of it. Family is sour, savory, nourishing, while it is also impoverishing.

Family is all of it: it is the close ones we love to care for, and the dangerous ones. Family is a raging sea, a rugged mountain, a warm fire, and an orchard of old fruit trees that have fed both grandmother and granddaughter. Family is acidic, and cruel; the sibling that would kill you, the uncle that would rape you. Family is anyone that is there for you at four in the morning. Whether or not someone shares your DNA, or your bed, or your household, or your history or your money — — family is an ever-shifting ecology.

Where is the edge of your family? Is it parents and children? Is it microbiome and the ecology? Is it the culture? Where is family in the history and hidden stories of love and destruction?

But family is not what it used to be. No nostalgia, just paradox. Family was always fraught with contradiction. People have always toggled between needing and not needing their families. We have all relished and resented both giving to our families and receiving from them. The familiar, which even has the word ‘family’ in it, is not a static state, or a predictable pattern. The familiar in a family is the reality that each day each member of a family changing. Each morning we wake up both knowing and not knowing our family.

Family is where we live. Not in countries or careers, or sectors or economic classes…in families. Even if I live alone my aloneness is written into the endless stretchy tendrils of my family.

This is relationship in complexity. This is day to day living.

The next decades of human life on this planet will reveal of how each of us has nourished the relationships we live within — today, tomorrow, next week… Did we perceive the complexity in ourselves, in each other, in the world? Did we tend to the relationships that build more relationships? Attention to words spoken to the child that set the tone for the grandchildren’s stories: the gift of a weekend conversation with the elders that holds a meta message of care for the past and future? Willingness to be wrong, willingness to be angry, willingness to be on the swirling time-boat together…

For me the big question now is about how relationships are approached. What is essential? What is the grounding of the relationships? Whose script are we on? What is it possible to say? What is it NOT possible to say? Who is it possible to be in this ecology of family? Are we playing the games of who is right and who is wrong? Is this a big stage on which to debate the past? Shall we dip backward into the formality of communication rooted in the legal system? Will we hold each other to the metallic edge of a mechanistic culture that justifies without context? Will it be asked: “Who said what, is it provable, what is the truth?”

Or will it be obvious, that in each moment the contexts and histories of each person bring their own reasoning. When contexts are perceived, direct correctives are vaporized, the interdependencies are seen, and the response is of another order. Exhale. There is no judge, only the deep waters of context and the unexpected insights that life provides. There is no script for what comes next, only practice in the stance of perceiving and responding to the complexity.

Relentlessly method-less, map-less, label-less — — the possibility for systems change lies in the connective tissue of how each of us is family-ing. The entire human species depends upon attention to finding artforms of mutual learning. The generations will learn together how to live differently, or they will not learn at all. This means that authority has to be a permeable membrane that can learn, and be learned from simultaneously. What better way is there to show the younger generations how to learn, than to let them see us learn from them? What better way to enter the challenges of the coming decades together than to practice improvising life together?

Family is a double bind that will both trap you and set you free.

That is just how it is. And, probably how it always has been.

Family is a time-boat

…. on which we will give birth in the high winds of change,

to another form of loving each other.

“If a thing loves it is infinite.” — William Blake.

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Wrapped… Photo N. Bateson

Filmmaker, writer, educator, lecturer, President of the International Bateson Institute. Books: Small Arcs of Larger Circles 2016, Warm Data *upcoming 2019

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