The Human Family
Last week I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with some members of my extended family. My brother, sister, and their spouses; nieces and nephews, my father, two of my grown sons, my ex-wife and her husband—14 adults in all—gathered around the table.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the passing last year of my mother, the clan matriarch who glued everything together, we were more harmonious than ever before.
By no means is the family in agreement on the wedge issues of our time that are cleaving families apart. Particularly on the vaccine issue, we range from enthusiastic pro-vaxxers to agnostics to over-my-dead-body vaccine resistors. Yet there were no arguments and—more importantly—no tense avoiding of the issue. It simply didn’t come up. Why not? The reason has significance for the entire human family as well as my own.
In previous essays I’ve explored the psychology of political identity. Political beliefs are not mere intellectual opinions on how society should run. They provide a sense of tribe, a sense of belonging, The display of opinions signals tribal identification. In this context, a challenge to one’s political beliefs lands like a threat to life itself. In many societies like Ancient Greece, ostracism or banishment was a punishment worse than death; often it was death. Who are you, without your relationships?
In my family gathering none of this signaling was necessary, because we are all secure in our primary identity as members of the family. I am deeply grateful that we all remembered that. My mother’s absence reminds us constantly how precious we each are. Even though she is no longer with is, the impression she made on the world still is. It is as if a star has burned out, but its gravity still keeps its solar system in orbit around it.
I wonder what the human condition would be if we all remembered how precious we each are as members of the human family, first and foremost. There would still be disagreements, but not warring opinion-tribes each armoring their narratives against all challenge. People would much more easily release their opinions when their identity, self-image, and acceptance did not ride on them.
I don’t mean to boast here about my family. I am acutely aware that whether for vaccine or other reasons, many people today are excluded from gatherings, barred from visiting grandchildren, or even publicly denounced. I don’t think there is an easy response to such a situation. My purpose here is simply to show another possibility.
In a warring family, where some won’t talk to the rest, the conflict often takes on a life of its own. It becomes about itself and all the things each side did to the other in the conflict. Who is right and who is wrong? Both sides have an answer to that. Each has a grievance, whether justified or not. Such conflicts rarely ends by the unjustified side surrendering to the justified side. For the conflict to end, each must come to hold healing higher than victory. As the saying goes, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Yes, if there is ongoing violence or transgression of sacred boundaries, it may be necessary to exclude someone from a gathering or keep them apart from society. But that is very different than maintaining a grudge.
I have a premonition about how the Covid rift in society will heal. The season of storms will end with a whimper. Neither side will admit they were wrong. Instead, everyone will quietly decide it wasn’t that important. Mandates will peter out. People will stop caring who is vaccinated and who isn’t. Already I’m noticing less public panic with each successive announcement of a new Greek-letter Covid variant. It reminds me of the War on Terror. By 2005 people utterly ignored airport loudspeakers blaring “The Department of Homeland Security has set the terror threat level to orange.” Just as the public ceased to be terrified of terrorism (which like Covid was never quite the threat it was trumped up to be) so also will Covid fear fade into the background. Die-hard partisans on one side will say, “It was the vaccines that stopped it.” On the other side they will say, “We finally reached natural herd immunity,” or, “The virus has evolved to be less virulent.” Most people won’t care.
For this to happen, people will have to let go of the goal of humiliating the other side. At our family gathering, I noticed a few times an urge to bring up the vaccine issue, and I sat with the feelings behind that urge. Why do I care so much what my son or brother-in-law thinks? Why is it important for me display a difference? Why do I want him to change his mind? It was because I’m so conditioned to opinions being tokens of acceptance. Which side are you on? Are you one of us, or one of them? Fortunately our family shares a tacit understanding that we are all one of us regardless of our opinions. Deeply immersed in that understanding, we probably could talk about contentious issues, but we wouldn’t be driven to do so by psychological forces of acceptance and belonging. In the absence of those drivers, we naturally talked about other things—without actively suppressing or avoiding the vaccine conversation.
What would our political landscape look like infused with the common understanding that we are all one of us? That we are all family? It sounds like an impossible ideal, wishful thinking, a fantasy. It isn’t. It is something each of us can practice right away personally, and collectively it is a social phase-transition that has been waiting to happen for a long time. Once it was foretold as the universal brotherhood of man. That’s the right spirit, if only half the population. It is awakening to our kinship with each other and all life. I call it the Age of Reunion. We know what the next step is, each of us. It is letting go of grudges. It is letting go of self-righteousness. It is standing in reverence for each other. We might takes sides, but we don’t source our identity from it, because our true identity draws from a deeper spring. All are welcome to drink of it.
Charles - I very much appreciate this essay and know that what you are describing is what we should all hope for and work toward.
I am confident I am not enlightening you on anything here but I want to be specific about one thing:
Both sides of this are not equal. It is not as if we both need our little stories to soothe us at the end of this, convincing us it was OUR side that was right.
My husband and I are both in health care. We have always gladly gotten all vaccines we had to have to work at the hospital and even ones we didn’t have to have.
When the Covid vaccines were first made available though something seemed off. Different. It is too long to go through here and it is ground well tread elsewhere but from health care and medical ethics standpoint, I had grave and growing concerns.
Fast forward to this fall. Mandates came and thank God we were granted exemptions. Certain extended family members were furious with us. We were informed we deserved to lose our jobs and basically be put under house arrest.
Please understand that in my extended family we have business executives, an attorney, several nurses, a doctor, an engineer, a pilot, etc. These are educated people.
This is my point:
If my husband and I had been in control of the pandemic response, everyone would have been provided vaccines AFTER they had been provided a rigorous informed consent. Safety issues would have been investigated thoroughly. Honest reporting would have been done about what we know, what we suspect but do not know, and what we absolutely have no ability to know. We would have progressed with recommendations to prevent infection, not mandates, lockdowns, etc., much like we recommend ways to prevent other infectious diseases. In other words, these people would have been able to do whatever they want, go out or stay home, work or not. They would have been left to decide what was best for you them and their household.
If THEY had gotten their way, people like my husband and I would be left with NO income, NO health insurance, and limited ability to shop. We would have been left unable to leave our homes to do pretty much anything.
I am Christian and therefore I am required to forgive the people who voted for and advocated for my destruction. Because that is what that was.
But it must be understood that our opinions and political viewpoints were NOT “opposite, but equal.”
People who advocate for the destruction of others must be forever seen as capable of doing just that. This was not a case of a misunderstanding or a “we were just trying to save lives” issue. They will move on to the next issue once this one dies down.
In the meantime I will be happy to eat with them and I must love them. But something has changed permanently. I will forever watch them like a hawk. Their instincts are dangerous and they will strike again.
Nice essay, wonderful thoughts. The problem is there is a predator class out there that wont leave us alone. These organizations aka "the state" are filled with people who wont put family first , or who wont forgive and forget. These groups are hell bent on dominating others. They use weapons of propaganda, blackmail, and fear to divide families and pit different groups in society which otherwise could coexist peacefully , against each other. These groups are relentless. They wont leave us alone. Every day it seems there is a new real or proposed depredation foisted upon us. Eventually the oppression and tyranny will become so great that the society will collapse and everyone will have to pick a side.