Who Is Your Family?

Posted on 05 January 2013


The following story is true.  The names have been omitted to protect the innocent and the guilty.


Family relationships are complex, and individual members of families often play roles determined by birth order, gender, comparative dominance-submissiveness of mother and father, and a variety of other factors.  Narcissism – ranging from a healthy self-love to psychopathology – is a factor in consideration of all human relationships.  And, of course, individual behaviors and motivations run the gamut from pure to evil.


Our story begins more than a half century ago when our protagonist, then a young girl, goes with her dad to purchase a new bicycle with the gift money she has received from family and friends for her First Holy Communion.  With a considerable amount remaining following the purchase, she informs her dad that she wants him to use the rest of the money to buy a new bike for her older brother so that she “can ride bikes with him.”  Of course, most older brothers don’t want their sisters tagging along with them, and so it is not surprising that the unexpected receipt of a new bike does not motivate her older brother to share the joys of bike-riding with her.


Our protagonist also has a significantly younger brother whom she adores from the time of his birth.  She takes care of him, looks out for him, and, as he grows into manhood, freely permits him to use her car, takes him and his girlfriend on vacations, and even pays when he buys his girlfriend gifts.  When he marries his girlfriend, our protagonist helps her brother paint his apartment at the conclusion of which he tells her that she should not be spending so much time with him.


Fast forward several decades, our hero’s older brother has recently lost his wife to an untimely death, is left with two young children to raise, and is in the throes of a deep depression.  He seeks out his sister and spends time with her every day for a period of months.  She comforts him, advises him, and connects him with professional help.  That Christmas, he tearfully recounts how during one of his darkest days, he was at a Chinese restaurant and broke open a fortune cookie to find a message of hope.  He hands his sister a package containing the framed fortune cookie message “Someone will come to your emotional rescue.”  Months later, having regained emotional stability, he no longer considers his sister’s point of view of any value.


Advance another decade and our protagonist’s older brother is remarried with a “new family” and her younger brother has two college-aged daughters.  Her parents are advanced in years and reside in a retirement community in New Jersey, wintering in Florida.


While her brothers are completely absorbed in their own lives and only see their parents on holidays, she makes the 50+ mile drive to her parents home several times weekly.  Noticing a significant decline in her parents’ mental capacities, she suggests to her brothers (the older of whom basically dictates the type and level of care his parents receive) that their parents’ mental capacities are diminished and that they should see appropriate medical professionals to determine if there are beneficial medications or therapies available to enhance mental acuity and improve the quality of their lives.  The older brother (to whom the younger brother always defers) determines that the parents are “fine” and chooses not to pursue any treatment options.


The following winter, her parents embark on the 3-hour trip from their New Jersey home to board the auto train in the DC-area, a trip that they had made each year for the previous 10 or more years.  This trip, however, proved to be different as they wandered aimlessly for five days throughout eastern Virginia apparently unable or unwilling to contact family or other form of assistance.  Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that neither of her brothers ever told their sister about this happenstance!


What is surprising, however, is that our protagonist, a devoted daughter and loving sister, now finds herself an outcast in her own family.  She finds herself in this situation for the same reason that has appeared to plague her during her entire life – she cares too much.  Now, that may seem a strange reason for a family to turn its back on one of its own.  But, I believe it to be more commonplace than one might expect.


In this case, it is perfectly consistent with the observed past behaviors of the parties.  As previously indicated, our protagonist has been concerned about her parents diminished mental capacities for quite some time.  In the past year, however, a number of trips to the emergency room by her parents have revealed a high blood value (I will not bore you with the details) indicative of unhealthy exposure to carbon monoxide.  Both parents  tested at high levels on multiple occasions.


When our hero presented these facts to her older brother, he had his parents’ residence tested.  When testing did not reveal a source, he was satisfied to cease any effort to pursue medical investigation or treatment to address this potentially deadly condition.  Our protagonist, not satisfied with anything less than 100% effort on her parents behalf, has doggedly attempted to motivate her brother to pursue a medical course that she believes will not merely protect the health of her parents, but also help restore their mental capacity.


Recently, her mother’s mental illness has played a role in creating a rift with our protagonist.  Her older brother has used this as an opportunity to cut off communication with his sister, an action that I’m certain he believes has simplified his life.


Thus, we arrive at this year’s Holidays – a time of peace on earth and goodwill toward all, a time when loved ones gather together and share in the spirit of the season.  And yet, our hero finds herself isolated from her family.  Does anyone at this year’s family gathering come forward in her defense – her younger brother, his wife, her nephew or nieces?  Not to this writer’s knowledge.


So, what is the upshot of this inarticulately narrated tale?  Can we reduce our hero’s plight to a dysfunctional family suffering some form of mental illness, or to a family in which runs a deeply seated strain of psychopathological narcissism, or a family comprised of evil people?  Is there any good or justifiable reason to treat someone of such pure motives as our protagonist so poorly?


It is questions such as these, together with the Holiday Season and some time to think as I recover from flu-like symptoms, that have given me pause to consider the nature of family relationships and the more significant question of “who is your true family?”


Of course, we all understand that we have people with whom we are biologically related.  Most of us know or have known our parents, grandparents, and siblings.  Yet, for many, one’s true family extends to others with whom they share no DNA and may, in fact, exclude some with whom they share blood relations.


I am reminded that no less a personage than Jesus had issues with his biological family and considered the nature of the true family relationship as illustrated by the following story from the Gospel of Mark:


Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came. They stood outside and sent a person in to tell Jesus to come out. Many people were sitting around Jesus. They said to him, “Your mother and brothers are waiting for you outside.” Jesus asked, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then Jesus looked at those people sitting around him. He said, “These people are my mother and my brothers! My true brother and sister and mother are those people that do the things God wants.” (Mark 3:31-35).


The pure of heart, like the protagonist in our story, cannot even begin to conceive the motivations driving the actions of those not so inclined.  They should not be concerned.  Rather, like Jesus, they should come to the realization that their true family are those who share their purity of purpose and generosity of spirit.



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