In the animal world the natural pattern and structure responsible for the survival of its young is the family. Tangibly perceived we can see that it provides a protected environment for the young to grow and mature safe and nurtured from a brutal environment heavily dependent on using its population as food for the diversity of its hierarchical ladder of differing species. We can plainly see that nature has a structure of predatory species balanced symbiotically with other species subject to being sacrificed insuring the survival of each level of complexity up through the evolutionary chain. Because we humans no longer see ourselves as an integral part of this chain of survival we have grown to become unaware that this dynamic structure is at the root of much more than just our physical survival. It has enabled us to evolve into beings gifted with much more than just a pension for longevity. It has given us an opportunity to use our mind to become self-aware. But it seems like our developing tendency to believe that we are the dominant species, invincible and separate from its laws has allowed the fabric of our initial advantage of having a structure for that nurturance to fall away in the name of a recently discovered quality of our mind; our ego. Other humans in our own elevated predatory chain have sensed this and are accelerating our social subjugation and the disintegration of our most natural and nuclear support system: the family. Whether by design or by recognized and seized opportunity, the disintegrating family structure has put us in a precarious position relative to the other members of our species. To understand this dynamic and its implications we must dig much deeper into the advantages and disadvantages of having a family structure and the qualities inherent in its being so. Let’s begin with examining the benefits of having a family structure.
I think the physical advantages of having a family structure and its support are eminently obvious so I will just cover the social dimensions. The first, and I believe the most contemporarily influential, is intimacy. For those of us who are a little older, this will be a little easier to comprehend since we’ve been through both “time zones.” For the younger generation this may feel like a foreign language.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re twelve years old and living at home with your family. The house is fairly large. Living together are your parents, brother and sister, a pair of grandparents and an aunt and uncle. The house has four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Your parents live in one room, you and your siblings share the second, your uncle and grandfather the third and your grandmother and aunt in the fourth. In one house this will be close quarters, especially with nine people sharing two bathrooms. In the 1940s and 50s and before, this was not uncommon.
With so many people living together, especially scattered through three generations, everyone would be privy to many more varied aspects of each other’s lives than we now are in our contemporary settings with everyone living in separate homes. If we were to “throw back” to living in that type of environment, most of us would feel extremely uncomfortable with feeling our privacy being challenged. And, there’s a reason for this. Privacy and our luxury of having it involuntarily regulates our potential for intimacy. How? Living apart, there are aspects of our lives that are not exposed to other members of our family. This is precisely the point that has enabled intimacy to change and how it is that we perceive it today.
The fact that living as an extended family together in one house does expose all its members to each other's private business is the catalyst that enables the necessity and our opportunity to learn, grow and become intimate with each other. If we live in close quarters with other members of our family, we are going to see and learn things about them that we wouldn’t had we lived apart. This “enforced proximity” makes it necessary to develop behaviors so everyone can comfortably live together without the threat of what we now perceive as a fear of exposure. Learning to be intimate in this way develops not only depth but a comfortability in dealing with close personal matters that families who live apart might never have the necessity or opportunity to experience with each other. The fear of exposure that I speak of is not only the fear of having someone know intimate details about us but the fear of them being able to use those details to manipulate us, much like being blackmailed, however, this fear has much deeper roots in leaving us feeling out of control with intimacy issues because we haven’t learned to handle them. Had we lived in close proximity with family other family members when we were growing up it would have taught us how to deal with them almost to the point where handling them would become second nature to us. The younger generations has never been trained to deal with the embarrassment that comes with feeling exposed or out of control.
We should also note that the development of humility is a quality that comes with being trained to deal with embarrassment and with the loss of intimacy which has all but disappeared from our contemporary and socially learned pantheon of recognized behaviors. Machismo and posturing have taken their place as a defense mechanism and as a distraction from the exposure of our perceived embarrassment and exposure. Due to the loss of becoming unable to experience or understand intimacy, most all measures of humility, compassion and appreciation have rapidly been replaced with feelings of entitlement, outrage, persecution and belittlement simply because we’ve never learned to handle the intimacy that allows for their development. Most of the younger generations are now afraid of intimacy since their inability to handle it now signals such a threat for embarrassment through the exposure of their sensed but unrecognized inadequacy in handling it. Additionally, because the younger generation hasn’t had the experience of living in the close proximity with an extended family and learning how to deal with intimacy, their perception and scope of it has been reduced to seeing and feeling it solely as an expression of sex.
A second dimension that is enhanced by living within a nuclear family structure and having a close interweave with intimacy is effective role modeling. Our family and its structure provide first hand examples. The advantage of having the training within the family structure is that the results of the role model’s behavior can be directly observed within the family structure. There is an immediate validation. We are able to quickly digest and incorporate the pros and cons of adapting any particular role our family members might exhibit.
A role model, in itself, is a relatively easy concept to comprehend and integrate into our psyches, especially, when we can see the behaviors immediately play out within our purview. We can then make a clear and confident decision about who we would and wouldn’t like to emulate. What we don’t immediately comprehend in having the example occur so closely is the quality of vulnerability and its importance in establishing a quality of depth in the role we might want to emulate. That is, in having the role model so close we can see the fallibility and vulnerability we will face in taking on the family member’s persona. In contrast, when we view a media role model we almost never see their human or fallible side. We don’t see them in situations other than those that accentuate the particular characteristics we’d want to personally integrate. We never see where they are vulnerable except where their projected excellence is concerned. So with Superman, we learn about kryptonite. With Batman we see his risk of identity exposure. With Bronson we see the murder of his wife as his drive and passion. But we never see their feelings. We never see what they’re afraid of. We never see how they interact in their “ordinary” lives. We don’t see their personal vulnerabilities. For us, their characters are incomplete. We never see what makes them human; what makes them like us when they’re not being the hero. As real people Dirty Harry and Bronson have feelings that we’re never allowed to see. We don’t see the integration of their vulnerabilities in their character. Hence, our emulation is ineffective, incomplete, and cardboard. When we see role models “up close and personal” as in our family, that vulnerability, that humanity, that fallibility is palatable and visible. We get a complete picture of how our emulation will progress. When we lose our family involvement our perception of that vulnerability is lost. Without a family history we must depend on one-sided and incomplete media heroes from which to select who we wish to emulate. We then literally go off “half-cocked.”
A third dimension that becomes advantageous to us when we grow up within a family structure is having an instant reflection for how we choose to interact with the world and other family members. If we adapt the behavior of one family member that other members have a problem with, we receive an immediate response to our “trial” behavior from other family members. We receive “instant karma” if you will. Because we see, imitate and receive an immediate response, we realize instantly how our behavior will be received by others in the outside world. Obviously, close proximity is one of the factors influencing the immediacy of the response we receive. If we don’t have the close proximity of the family to emulate and reflect our trial behaviors, we must look to others in our environment who may choose to escape our influence rather than confront a challenging behavior we might experimentally project at them. This has the effect of leaving us unanswered and without a clean reflection for knowing who we are, who we wish to become and whether our trial behavior will actually be effective in the world for us or not. So, living in close proximity to a family enhances the speed of our developing emotional “maturity.” Without being raised within a family structure we become emotionally slowed, inexperienced and even stunted in handling social issues compared to those who have.
Of course there are other reasons being raised in a family structure might have advantages. One more, which is self-explanatory, is having a family member mentor us in some life endeavor in which we have yet to have experience in. The advantages of them having personal insight and experience are tremendous.
There is another dimension of the disappearing family structure that needs to be realized. We can all understand that our western culture, especially in the United States and other comparably “advanced” nations, foster a shared ideal of becoming independent in our personal growth, success and autonomy. Sociology calls this type of culture High Context. That is, our goals are centered on personal accomplishment and autonomous self-support. The progress we’ve had in technology has contributed tremendously to our becoming so while the media sells to us using our fear of personal dependency and perceived helplessness as a motivation toward buying their tools, products and skills intended to reinforce and heighten our feelings of independence and autonomy. But I think that we have gotten so enamored with our desire for “freedom” and independence and how technology can provide that for us that we have abandoned our only personal support for the, mostly irrational, ideal. We can also see that the media has jumped on board providing us with role models heroes that heighten our desire for autonomy and “lone wolfmanship.” The underlying force there is our growing assumption that strength comes from independence and a lack of our having any obligations to anyone else for our “success.” Our pendulum of the balance between our capacity for others and “need” to unrelated and unbeholding to anyone else has become skewed way far to one side.
That stage being set, let’s look at the droves of people immigrating into our country. Mostly Hispanics, their culture is mostly what sociologists call Low Context. That is, their primary focus is that the welfare of the family and their clan is all important and that independent pursuits and personal successes are secondary as compared to the welfare of the family. This approach, at its core, runs totally contrary to the extremes of independence that our media and technology has driven us to. Fear of destitution and loss of control has contributed significantly to our drive into being High Context. Incidentally, if a primary ploy for defeating an army (family) is to divide and conquer, our media, corporations and government are right on target with their strategies. Dissolving the family structure weakens our defenses and support structure for counteracting whatever they would like to sell us or enslave us with. On some level some businesses have also recognized this trend and business policies have become heavily invested in promoting teamwork or, essentially, the establishment of a business family to compensate for the ineffectiveness and anarchy that personal independence inevitably leads to. This feeling of destitution and lack of family support is also what drives many kids to join gangs to find that love and support.
The dissolving of the family structure, whether planned or unintentional is responsible for creating a more technologically informed, but less mature emotionally, culture. There are way too many factors that contribute and need to be discussed relative to the rapidly expanding extinction of the nuclear family. The tremendous wave of illiterate immigration may set us back technologically on an individual level but perhaps their influence will begin to renew family ties once we begin to realize that it still holds many benefits that we’ve lost and can regain and, like the animal kingdom, are still needed for our survival; physically AND emotionally.