Saturday, January 29, 2022

Since A Good Childhood Is Key To Everything In Life: Matthew 25:40-45 - Or Nah?

annehelen  |  The vast majority of societies on this planet still understand family as their primary, most cherished bond. Blood relation or not, there is an understanding that forsaking these bonds is a form of unforgivable treachery, understandable only in circumstances of abject trauma. Within this paradigm, all parties should do whatever possible to maintain the bonds of family, even if those bonds require continued suffering.

In some societies, this understanding is changing. There are several, overlapping reasons for this change — related to mobility, LGBTQ rights and visibility, access to therapy, and more — yet for people who are estranged, the experience can still feel incredibly solitary. Most people who aren’t estranged are very, very bad at talking about it; in society at large, estrangement remains something to be “sorry” about: a regret, a sorrow, a throbbing absence.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are so many reasons why people cut off contact with close and distant family. Some are immediately legible in description, others are not, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that contact became unendurable, damaging, or, in my case, brought out the very worst in who I was. As you’ll see in the answers below, it is rarely swift. It is rarely without pain. But that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.

While putting together these responses, I was reading Rin Reczek and Emmy Bosley-Smith’s Families We Keep, forthcoming this May, which surveys the various negotiations of LGBTQ people who’ve chosen to maintain or cut off ties to family members. It’s a difficult book, filled with rejection and compromise intercut by flashes of stability and support. And their conclusions are bracing: they argue that “compulsory kinship,” in which we work to sustain bonds to family irregardless of the harm those bonds have caused, is at once insidious and deeply damaging.

“The compulsory relationship between parents and children might sound like a great deal to some—especially those with healthy parent-child ties,” Reczek and Bosley-Smith write. “Of course, the parent–adult child tie can result in a life full of positivity, love, and kindness. But for many people this is not the case. We believe if parent-adult child relationships aren’t good for everyone, then parents’ primacy in our social structure and in adult children’s social identities must be questioned. Even though there are some “good” parents, the fact that “bad” ones have so much power should provoke us to radically rethink our societal reliance on this kinship institution.”

Reczek and Bosley-Smith invite us to consider what an “ethic of care” might look like, in which all people, no matter their age or their existing family, could experience “a sense of belong and identity, alongside emotional, practical, and financial help.” That sense can come from community, but it should also come from the safety nets we put in place as a society. Put differently, your safety and nourishment as a child, as a young adult, as a parent, as someone with specific medical or emotional needs, as an aging person — none of it should be wholly contingent on the luck (truly!) of being born into a family that is financially or emotionally able to provide them for you.

All of these stories, as one of the respondents put it, are “beautifully complex.” If you’re estranged, I hope they make you feel less alone in some way. If you’re not, I hope they offer some insight into how to talk with and support those who are estranged — but more importantly, that they push you to think about what’s lost when we rely so fully on family as our primary source of support.

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