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.