Yesterday I woke up dreaming about my nephew John. Today it was my sister Ruth. I haven’t seen Ruth in eleven years and haven’t seen John in longer than that, yet I still dream about them, apparently every night. Family. I know a lot about family because I’m estranged from mine. It makes you think.
Dr. Ghaly, who used to be my psychiatrist, is all about family—God first, family second, soccer third—and he’s Egyptian. One day, in talking about family, he said there was an Egyptian saying that literally translated as “the blood feeling.” He went home and asked his wife what it meant in English and she replied, “Blood is thicker than water.”
The blood feeling. What he was probably referring to was DNA that recognizes—and seeks?—its own. There was a little boy in my church to whom I was particularly attracted and one day I realized it was because he looked like my childhood pictures. If I’d had children then their children might have looked like him. His DNA and my DNA had developed us to look a lot alike, and you always care about your own. I was not drawn to him by shared life experience, but by appearance.
The blood feeling. The context of the Bhagavad Gita is a war between cousins and it is clearly stated that without family you are dead. The Bhagavad Gita is considered to be God’s revealed truth in Hinduism, which predates Christianity by about fifteen hundred years. My mother, until her marriage at the age of twenty-two, lived within walking distance of all thirteen of her cousins; I did not live within walking distance of any of mine. How about you? How connected are you?
You can’t have that blood feeling if you don’t see each other. My two older sisters were married and living separate lives when our father took a job 270 miles away from them. My younger brother, sister and I moved with our parents but by the time they moved again, I was living independently and stayed behind. That’s one way that families get separated. Another way is that children go off to college or the military and don’t return, or they are driven by the economy and go where the jobs are.
We live in a world where we pretend that cell phones, videos and jetliners keep us connected. They do not keep us connected at any meaningful level. Maybe in an instant and at a cost of a few cents, I can connect with a sister on the other side of the world but it’s a pretty lousy connection. About ninety percent of all communication is nonverbal. If you’re not sitting at the kitchen table together at least once a week then you’re not family. You’re just visitors in one another’s lives.
Without family, we die. Ask anybody who lives in HUD-subsidized housing—high-rise apartment buildings, tiny two-room apartments, all single occupancy for people who are old or disabled. There are about twenty of these buildings in my city: you want to think about how many there are nationwide? Old, sick people living alone. I came home from the store on Monday and there were three police cars sitting outside the front door. “What’s up?” I asked another tenant in the lobby. “They found a dead body in one of the apartments on the second floor,” he replied. It is not an infrequent occurrence. Without family, we die unnoticed. Millions of us are at risk for that.
The blood feeling dies out if you don’t foster it. You’ve got to have face-time with your kin if you expect to keep them—and, brother, you really need to keep them. When the chips are down then only your family will come through for you and if you don’t have family then you are totally screwed. A USA Today editor quit his job and moved to Upstate New York. Why? Because his wife’s parents needed her. Would you do that? Do you know what’s important? What are your priorities? God first; family second.
A couple years ago a study was published that said people currently identified as having two close friends. When the study was done ten years earlier, people had identified three close friends. We are limping along as a society, getting further and further away from each other. There is something you can do about it: you can choose to get closer. You can make family maintenance a priority. You can choose to sit at your cousin’s kitchen table. You can decide that the job offered a thousand miles away is not as valuable as staying close with family. When your college kid gets arrested for possessing drugs and ten thousand dollars in cash, who do you think is going to stand by you? Your mom and your uncle and your sisters—not your church or the neighbors or the people with whom you work.
Family matters. The blood feeling is what holds you together. You have to earn friends; family comes at no cost. You need them in order to have a good life. Only family will stand by you when the chips are down—and what life is ever lived without the chips going down? There is a brittleness among insular family members that you don’t find among folks in extended families. For five years I lived in a village where families stayed together. A woman, in her front yard, would wave her arm and say, “My mom lives back there. My brother is over there [a wave in a different direction] and my uncle’s just around the corner.” There was security and protection no matter what the problem.
If you’ve got family then you’ve got everything you need in this life. Value that. Protect it. Enhance it. You can either live with your family or dream about them for the rest of your life.