November 18, 2002    Psychology

Postmodern Family

These days, we are all keenly aware of the changing roles of genders. There were days when one had to take on, against one’s wish, a role assigned by one’s own gender because of material necessities. It made sense for men who were physically stronger to go hunting, and for women who were physically equipped to nurture children to stay home. Today, chiefly because of technological advancements, the differences between sexes became less relevant. We all therefore strive to evolve ourselves more ideologically. The question I want to address below is this: If technological advancement renders the differences between sexes irrelevant, then how about the concept of family?

A family is essentially a unit of support system. There were days when human beings could not survive without it. Those days are over. Today, most of us can survive perfectly fine on our own without receiving any support from our families. This renders a family as a support system less meaningful. This is analogous to the modern situation of women where they do not need to be dedicated to domestic chores. The traditional assignment of women to these domestic roles is less meaningful now.

Just as there are those who find comfort in playing the traditional roles of sexes, many find comfort in playing the traditional roles of family. A family as a support system works in a similar way to organized crimes. You receive a sense of security, helping hands, and emotional support from your family, but in return you must pay your dues. As in a typical Mafia family, you don’t want to spell out what these dues are. You do not talk about them as something you have to do, but as something you want to do. In other words, you are required to be generous to other members of your family, but this is where the hypocrisy lies. Generosity or unconditionality in family is only a pretense in most situations.

Whenever we do something that we don’t want to do, as a human being, we cannot help expecting something in return, whether it is money, a sense of appreciation, or a favor in the future. As a counter-argument, take, for instance, those who seem unconditionally generous. They are usually happy people who feel that they are getting more than a fair share of happiness, so they want to share with others part of what they have. The reason why they do not expect anything back is because they want to be generous. If they felt they have to, they would end up expecting something in return. The level at which a person feels happy about his life varies. Some may never feel it no matter how much money they make, while others may feel it even if they can hardly survive. Either way, if you do something you don’t want to do, you will end up expecting something in return. Then, it is no longer generocity; only pretense.

This has certain implications. If someone requests your help as a form of generosity, and if you don’t feel you want to, then you are better off being honest, and saying no. That is, if, say, your cousin wants you to be generous, but you don’t feel like it, then just say no. If you feel you have to be generous, you cease to be generous because you end up expecting something back. So, you would only be pretending to be generous. By accepting his request, you are lying to him and yourself. Many people end up saying yes, because they want to think of themselves as someone generous. You can’t consciously be generous; you are as generous as you are. If you push yourself to be generous, you will end up expecting something back.

Given this nature of human beings and the fact that we no longer need a support system, a family in our postmodern era is destined to be something rather ugly. A postmodern family, for the most part, is a system of codependency. It is a nest from which many refuse to fly away. They mistake their dependency on each other as love. They also confuse their fear of losing their family members with love, when in fact it is the fear of losing their support systems. They love the sense of security their family can provide, but they hate paying their dues. It is unavoidable for a family to be full of disappointments, misunderstandings, unfulfilled expectations, and back-stabbings. Somewhere deep down, they know that they should fly away from the nest, that it is not necessary, and that they can be truly independent without expecting anything from their families, but they become scared. They think: What if I become disabled? What if I contract HIV? What if I incur a huge debt? These fears make the idea of family sounds very attractive again. They think to themselves, “Perhaps, I should help my cousin for his wedding.”

For a family where codependence is severe, each member is a bag of heroin to each other; a mixture of love and hate. Codependence fosters unhealthy competitions. They see their dependent selves projected onto each other, and they don’t like what they see. As a form of denial, they desperately try to be different from other members of the family, whether it is to be happier, more successful, or more independent. But they do so only superficially. They might take off from their nest briefly, but they come right back only to brag about it. In the end, no one truly takes off from the nest. Even if they live physically in different houses, mentally they have never left home. They love the sense of security their family provides, but they hate the ugly images of themselves they see in each other. So develops the relationship of love and hate.

Part of the dues you pay as a family member is to be representable. That is, you are expected to be good enough to represent your family, because you believe that who you are and what you do reflect on the entire family. As long as you are a member of the family, you must live up to their expectations. The deal is fair because they don’t respect your individuality, and you don’t respect theirs either. Their identities and yours too become codependent. Guilt by association, like racism. If you want them to respect your individuality, you have to respect their individuality too, which means that even if your uncle is a gay pornographer, you must respect him for what he is, and not interfere with his business. You have to let other members of your family be what they are even if you disapprove what they do and believe, or even if their identities embarrass you.

Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. The more freedom you have, the more responsibility you have. Freedom means independence. Responsibility means taking risks. You can’t have one and not the other. The more you hide behind the security of a family, the less freedom you have. If you must rely on your family to live, you would have to listen to their opinions even for matters that are personal, like marriage. What do you expect? A deal is a deal.

The ugliest form of codependency is seen in a family where the parents fully expect their children to take care of them when they retire. Their rationale is, “We took care of you when you were young, so you have to take care of us when we are old.” It would be perfectly fair if the child was capable of choosing parents at birth, but he had no choice in the matter. It is not like he could tell his parents at or before birth, “If those are the terms of the deal, then I’m going to go with some other parents.” It would also be understandable if the government or some other institutions forced the parents to have a child, but this rarely ever happens. Such an expectation by parents to take care of them after retirement is nothing short of exploitation.

Naturally, some family relationships are genuinely amicable. By this, I mean a kind of relationship where even if they weren’t related, they would still be great friends. Kinship in such a relationship is secondary to friendship. In our postmodern society, if we removed the symbolism associated with human relationships, the only one that is ideologically justifiable is friendship. Consider, for instance, if you would still be a friend if you found out that he is not really your father. If you feel you wouldn’t be his friend, why do you invest so much time in such a person? An obvious, albeit meaningless, answer is: “Because he is my father.” But, what does being your father mean in today’s world? Once you are an independent adult yourself, what meaning does the word “father” have if he cannot be your friend? Instinctively it seems wrong to dismiss your own father as a mere friend or as just another person, but in our society where there is no true need for a support system, you need to question what it means, otherwise you become a slave to traditions, just as some women still are victims of the traditional roles of gender.

If you are willing and capable of helping others, why discriminate between a family member and a non-family member? One can only afford to give so much help to others that if one puts priority on one’s own family members, unavoidably less will go to outsiders. This in turn means that those without their own families will receive less help in general, because people are less willing to help non-family members. From a different perspective, I could argue that if it weren’t for the tradition of family, we would be far more willing to help each other in general. People become more fearful of being without a family support system, because others discriminate against them. In this manner, family-based support system perpetuates its own fear and insecurity. If we did not discriminate based on kinship, we would be able to get enough help from each other, and family as a support system would be entirely unnecessary.

If you don’t expect anything from your parents, and if they don’t expect anything from you, then anything you do for each other is truly out of love; no deals or silent obligations. If each member of your family was independent enough and did not require each other’s help, perhaps your help could be extended to someone else who never had a family. In this scenario where the tradition of family is irrelevant, there would be only one family on earth to which all of us would belong.