Organizing life around the ties created through blood and marriage is extremely efficient. In the majority of societies the whole of political life is based on family groups, the members of whom support each other in their feuds and vendettas. Many of the tribal societies such as the Yanomamo of the Amazon forest, or the Nuer of the Sudan are examples of this, but it is also the case in many parts of China or India in the past. The State is relatively unimportant. Marriage is arranged as a political alliance. Likewise, all property flows through the family, most jobs are found through family contacts, who you work with is organized on the basis of family relationships. The impersonal world of money, businesses, market exchanges just exists on the margins.
All of religion revolves around the family. People venerate their ancestors, conduct rituals with their family, need children to help send them to a happy after-life. Furthermore, most of social life is family based. Only family are really to be trusted, they are one’s closest friends, comrades, partners in leisure and work. The family welcomes the new members, who then pass into sexual maturity, get married and are looked after in old age and finally buried.
This is very far from our world, where the family can remain quite important, but mostly at the level of the individual. It is important for our emotions, for our first fifteen years of nurturing and perhaps in our old age. It often gives some satisfaction and pattern in the rest of life. Yet our political allegiances, our religious beliefs, our jobs, our friendships and those we trust are largely separated off. The family is only one element in all of this.
This is such a relatively unusual situation, and so obviously fits with a highly mobile industrial and capitalist society, that many people used to think that it was a recent phenomenon. They believed that it must be the result of the way society had been broken apart by the industrial and urban revolutions of the nineteenth century.
Yet historians have now shown that what we might call the individualistic and flexible family system which you experience goes back hundreds of years. This can be seen in the various ways we use to calculate who we are related to, the terminology, the inheritance systems and in evidence about who lived with whom and what their rights were. For a thousand years in England the family has not provided the foundation for the rest of society. Throughout that period it has contained that inner tension between desiring to be close and dependent, and the desire to be free and adult.
This is very different from the situation in the majority of societies both in the past and the present. The contrast is described in the words of an old North American Pomo Indian of California. ‘What is a man? A man is nothing. Without his family he is of less importance than that bug crossing the trail… A man must be with his family to amount to anything with us. If he had nobody else to help him, the first trouble he got into he would be killed by his enemies… No woman would marry him… He would be poorer than a new-born child, he would be poorer than a worm… In the White way of doing things the family is not so important. The police and soldiers take care of protecting you, the courts give you justice, the post office carries messages for you, the school teaches you. Everything is taken care of, even your children, if you die; but with us the family must do all of that.’
In the modern west, our relations with our family change over our lifetime. Parents start as authority figures who are also the source of all good things. They then become objects of antagonism and perhaps derision. Hopefully they end up as loved grandparents to our children. Likewise children start as exhausting delights, turn into rebellious monsters, and again, with luck, the loved parents of our grand children.
What is certain is that in the western system parents cannot demand their children’s unconditional love and obedience. Nor can children demand that their parents show them endless love and support. Love comes from self-sacrifice and tolerance. It comes from not expecting too much, not reliving in our children our failures and insufficiencies. And on the children’s part it depends on an understanding of aging and the loneliness this brings. Only thus can we avoid the danger pointed out by the old Pomo Indian.
‘With us the family was everything. Now it is nothing. We are getting like the White people and it is bad for the old people. We had no old people’s home like you. The old people were important. They were wise. Your old people must be fools.’