What Connects Us And When Do Feel Like We Have A New Family?

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Wednesday, 7.10am

Sheffield, U.K.

If Adam and Eve can’t make it work in Paradise, how am I going to make it work in Lewisham? – Sara Pascoe

Families are complicated and test the best of us. As Ram Dass once said “If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family”. But we can’t live without family too – and if you get along well enough with people you think of them as family. So how does this work in a community – what causes family-like relationships to work, what causes breakdowns and what can we do about them?

Think back to your own experiences with family. Have you experienced a rift at any time and what caused it? The chances are that it had something to do with behaviour – first something was done and then something else happened and everything was wrapped up in layers of communication – strings of chatter connecting everything and everyone but with fraying ends and complete breaks.

For much of human history the way we behave has been prescribed by protocol – by an expectation codified into society, based on religion, status – and what passes for good manners. A breach of protocol is a breach of trust, a break in expectations and often leads to a breakdown in relationships. But where have these protocols come from? Have they emerged over time, grounded in the nature of the environment the community lives in? Or have they been created, imposed to create the kind of environment the people in control want to have?

Take two examples. Michael Welsh, a Professor of Cultural Anthropology, tells the story of how his adopted family in Papua New Guinea is once accused of witchcraft. When someone gets ill the family often blame someone else for casting an evil eye and this results in a breakdown in communication. Welsh talks about how this wasn’t fair – the person who got ill had actually done their share of bad things such as stealing. The accused person, his adopted father, had done nothing and had, in fact, tried to help the person who was ill. But the accusations stood and the only way to resolve them was for the father to pay compensation, even though he had done nothing wrong and rebuild those broken ties.

Welsh didn’t really understand this – why would you pay to fix something when you hadn’t done anything wrong? And the conclusion he came to is complex and woven into the nature of kinship and relationships. If a relationship thread is broken, for whatever reason, then you have to do something to fix it and that’s why his adopted father did what he did. But why did the thread break in the first place? And that, Welsh suggests, has deeper roots, grounded in the terrain of Papua New Guinea which is harsh and unforgiving and cannot support a large number of mouths in any given region. Villages are small and spread out widely. In the past, accusations of witchcraft often led to the accused party leaving the village and setting up a new settlement far away – and perhaps all this worked as a way to maintain the balance in a place where you had this struggle for resources. Welsh also points out that this protocol for small, widespread communities came under pressure as towns and cities were developed by colonial powers, squeezing together people who were used to distance between themselves.

The second example comes from the story in the Da Vinci Code about the Council of Nicaea convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine converted to Christianity on his deathbed and set out the first uniform doctrine that members of their faith would follow – and this set the path of the religion for millenia. This was a conscious choice to weld the power of the Roman Emperor with a rising and increasingly powerful religious movement, cementing the legitimacy of power with divine sanction.

Witchcraft and religion may have much in common and they are perhaps the oldest ways in which people think about their relationships with others in their community. Dealing with issues is done using ancestral coping styles as White (1999) suggests. This happens across communities – my own is heavily into invoking the gods to help out with pretty much everything. And these approaches are passed down over generations, assumed as the way to deal with things, and so much of the difficulty arises when old ways of coping have to deal with new ways of communication and misinterpretation.

Then again, perhaps the old ways are the same ways we do stuff now, except they’re couched in the old language rather then the newer ones of therapy or counselling. Edinyang (2012) lists some approaches that could help with managing conflict. These include accommodation, where one party puts themselves at a disadvantage to preserve the relationship, like Wesch’s adopted father did. There is collaboration and compromise, where you work together to find a mutually acceptable solution and there are problem-solving approaches you can take to see what caused the rift and what you can do to avoid such problems in the future. Or, of course, you can avoid the whole thing which is when you end up not speaking to your relatives for years or decades.

The way you get better at building relationships is by getting better at communicating – with empathy, awareness, and respect. These are not easy skills to learn for some of us. We may be abrupt, less given to social niceties, less attuned to social cues. We see this with children. The ones that have more friends are the ones that more people can get along with. Of course, over time, you also have mini-power manifestations, where the popular kids are the powerful kids. But the ones with friends are the ones that can see and navigate the complex relationship space of the playground. And perhaps they can do this well because they’ve seen their parents navigate the complex relationship space of the family. Thinking about it, perhaps that’s why second children have it easier. The first has no competition, no need to be anything but the undisputed master of the house. The second has to negotiate and accommodate from the very beginning, and so learns the skills to get on while the first has to learn the skills of giving up power.

That leads us into the rules of the game – how things are played and that means we need to look at the playground and right back to the very beginning, so let’s do that in the next post.

As a quick update, I’m 41 posts and 50,000 words into this book and I’ve finished the first third of the book. The other sections are smaller, I think, and this continues to be a hard project and I will not be unhappy when it’s done…

But for now, we’ll carry on.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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