Sunday, December 19, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 234: Biomythography - Note 11, Families: Do They Exist?

A Biomythography - Note 11
by Secret Hippie


On the Existence of Families

Sometimes my father, a philosophy major, raised the question explicitly: do societies exist? Or families and other groups? Or are there only individuals?

When I was a teen the obvious answer was individuals. In some ways, it was a very American response. But it was also due to how my father hadn't grown up with access to a big, extended family. His mother had been raised in an orphanage, far away from most of her blood relations. His father died when he was two. The result was that, except for his sister and an uncle, Jack, my father's family connections didn't exist.

For my part, I had also read about cultures in which entire families were punished for the transgression of a single member of their bloodline. That seemed immoral and it still does. So I came down hard on the side of individuals mattering, never groups.

For instance, years ago a limousine convoy of Orthodox Jews in New York City hit and killed an African-American toddler. They fled the scene, which made their conduct unjust not only because of the moral crime during the accident but also after, from their evasion of personal responsibility.

When a gang of teens later that day isolated and beat to death an Orthodox Jewish boy in retribution, that was an immoral example of group justice. They killed an innocent as if the murder were equivalent to killing the person responsible for the toddler.

When the police responded to that incident by arresting African-American teenagers, they tried to assure the public that they had found the people responsible. That is, they needed to assert that they were not perpetuating injustices to individuals in the name of justice for groups of people.

Every step of this process seems like an example of how justice needs to be determined at the level of individuals. Yet a series of books and examples from my life led me to understand how group identities endure regardless. They are persistent and will always cause problems for perceptions of justice. What seems like a weak, almost tenuous, level of existence-by-agreement is actually tough to eradicate and it may be unwise to do so. Shared imaginations like "I'm part of a religious tribe" or "I belong to this corporation" are harder to end, in fact, than the people who compose them.

As everyone knows, when a worker in a corporation dies, the corporation hardly notices. That's even if we're talking about the death of the most influential leader of the organization. Many corporations, religions, fraternal organizations, and even hobby groups survive such events. Families do, too.

On one hand: our country exists in our shared imagination, so if everyone woke up thinking that it didn't exist, it wouldn't.

On the other hand: our country is going to outlast everyone reading this. Just because something is a shared imagination doesn't mean it isn't robust. That's a weird thought to many teenagers, I know.

Our families are smaller, more fragile organizations than countries. Unless you are the final branch of a narrow line, though, your little clan is going to outlast you. Even if you feel that you are the last, someone else counts you as part of their tree of relatives. Others have adopted you, mentally, even when you don't know it. The existence of your family is stronger than you. Really. And always.

Siddhartha - Nothing Exists

When I was twelve, I read a short novel by Herman Hesse based loosely on the life of Siddhartha Gautama. It's fiction, not biography, and it tells a story of enlightenment within the context of rebellion against state religions. Moreover, it describes a belief that nothing exists and shows how that idea can change meaning when seen from different viewpoints.

“How deaf and stupid have I been!" Siddhartha thought, walking swiftly along.

"When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and a worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters. I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened.”

In a key transition point, Siddhartha moves from despising the impermanence of the world to adoring it, from hating the impurity in himself and others to realizing that love is the main thing.

Maybe it was due to growing up in a house full of philosophy texts but I read quite often about the impermanence of material things. In many Buddhist books, the authors assert that nothing exists at all. The sensual world is completely an illusion. Our bonds of friendship and family are parts of a dangerous snare. Such attachments to other people lead us into having even more desires and heavier sorrows.

Siddhartha, though, doesn't trust the lack of sorrow that has been promised by emotional detachment. Raising a son brings him frustration and unhappiness, as he had foreseen when younger, yet it brings him greater understanding of people and a stronger love for them.

Friends Exist

Unlike families, societies, countries, and other organizations, I never had any doubt about friendships. They are the most powerful influence in my life and probably most other lives. Unlike families and nations, though, friendships can't outlast the lifetimes of the participants. At most, they are part of a human web of friendships and can pass on part of their spirit.

Also, love does not need to be returned so there are no people who need to be my friend in order for me to be theirs. Often enough, there's a bond of affection from both sides anyway. If it's not zen to be so attached, then it's not. We can give up part of our joy and freedom to love one another in our impermanent relationships in our imperfect ways.

Friends in Theory

Since I've mentioned how literature affected my perception of organizations, including families, I think it's worth mentioning the smaller influence of literature on my concept of friendship.

Most books demonstrate the basic rules of our affinities with others by focusing on the practical aspects. For instance, friends share adventures together. Or they sit in silence, happy. Or they give gifts to one other. They might come to the rescue. They might suffer together. In A Wrinkle in Time, the three main characters do all of these. In adventure books, friends protect one another more or less constantly like in the Hardy Boys, The Lost World, The Forgotten Door, and the Chronicles of Amber. When I think about friendships in story form, though, I keep returning to The Lord of the Rings.

Meriadoc says,

"You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends."

He blurts out this sentiment at the beginning of their terrible adventure. Then he holds true to his words. The story he lives is informed by war. Tolkien wrote to this mindset because, after two world wars, he accepted it as natural: never abandon a friend; never leave anyone behind. Although in real wars we do sometimes leave behind dying friends or dead bodies, humans do try to stand by the members of their tribes. Because they are our friends. And we are theirs.

Le Morte D’Arthur - How Brothers Exist

Brotherhood is more troublesome than friendship but only because siblings are raised together and are more defined by one another than friends, especially friends who meet after childhood. But my brothers are how I developed an intuitive sense of family. The are the reason I kept thinking more and more about what family means.

"Meanwhile Sir Launcelot watched from his ambush and just as they were leading the queen to the fire, shouted the word of command, charged with his followers through the spectators, and assaulted the guards.

In the tumult that followed, many of the guards were killed ... lastly Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris, both of them unarmed, and whom Sir Launcelot killed without recognizing."

Before this part of the book, Sir Gawain had been the character that made the most sense. Unlike many others portrayed by Malory, he was fully human. That is, Gawain was not particularly virtuous but he tried to be. He made peace with King Arthur, his uncle, despite Arthur killing Gawain's father in battle. He aimed to be a responsible older brother and set a good example for Arthur's knighthood. When his younger brothers surpassed him in their achievements, he cheered them on. This was a character I understood. He seemed to live in a type of family I knew.

Everything about the revenge of Sir Gawain upon Launcelot and about his care for his brothers rang true thereafter. Brotherhood demands loyalty. It is bigger than individuals. It is bigger, perhaps, than families. It extends across political and religious tribes to even murderers like Launcelot, whom Gawain forgave as he lay dying from wounds inflicted by his brother knight.

It was my brothers who first taught me about families despite my father's lack of family tradition and despite his opposition to close-knit clans.

The Godfather - How Families Exist

Close-knit clans took some reading to understand, for me.

Even though I had grown up with glimpses of family structures, I didn't really comprehend the gulf between growing up without them, as my father had done, and living in them the way my mother had. In a stable clan, the cousins, second cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews, and upward and outward for multiple generations, can take one another for granted. They can even be annoyances to one another. When I talk to people who have grown up in normal, reasonably close families, they never grasp all of the small interactions that would go missing without their relations.

All the friendships before, all the books, all the examples of families in my life led up to this book, The Godfather. It must seem odd that a book, not a family reunion, not a text about Chinese history, not a genetics class, nor a discussion in sociology, no, a particular piece of crime fiction gave me the emotional clues I needed. That's because, to me, The Godfather was a story about families.

How many times does Don Corelone talk about family? He talks about it even when he's playing up the idea of strong friendship. He says to his godson, Johnny Fontane, a singer who is losing his career,

"Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendship you wouldn't have to ask me to help."

He emphasizes the importance of fatherhood even to an enemy,

“Tell me. Do you spend time with your family?”
“Sure I do.”
“Good. Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

When his adopted son asks why he has to be the one to say 'no' to members of the family so often, not the great Don Corleone, Don reveals,

"You cannot say 'no' to the people you love, not often. That's the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a 'yes'. Or you have to make them say 'no.' You have to take time and trouble.”

Most of all to his sons, he emphasizes the need for togetherness. It's not just something that makes people feel comforted. Or rather, it is that but it is more. Unity in a family is a practical thing. It can be a life or death advantage over others.

"We are a family, and the loyalty of the family must come before anything and everyone else. For if we honor that commitment, we will never be vanquished - but if we falter in that loyalty we will all be condemned.”

So Don Corelone understands that it is all about family. Later, his son Michael comes to the same understanding. As he ages, he sees more of the uncaring world and compares it to the loving attention it takes to raise his household.

“Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important. If I can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world. But his children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity, but he, as a powerful and prudent parent, would most certainly keep a wary eye on that general family.”

Michael comes to an understanding of a family loyalty that is separate from but nearly the same as the loyalty of friends. He sees that families can be defended like brothers. Naturally, he intends to grow his clan and to keep safeguarding it from harm.

Years after reading about it, I found myself entertaining the idea that it was possible - that I could nurture and grow a family.

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