Saturday, July 25, 2009

Photo Album Family

"Family means having a heart full of fond memories & gathering together for summertime picnics and holiday traditions. They give you hope and comfort and are always there with open arms. It means having a lifetime of history together. Family is where unity begins. Cherish the love forever. Always together, forever."

I read that yesterday and thought it was a nice, warm fuzzy definition of a family bond. The ironic thing about it however, is that it was on the cover of a photo album which contained pictures of family members that are now divorced and have no contact with each other. The step-children have no contact with each other, and their kids are growing up not knowing their step-cousins, and what was once a seemingly strong family bond is now a group of strangers that might not even recognize each other if they passed on the street.

This got me to thinking about what family really is, and the various definitions of that. If you think about all the different kinds of families there are, it can be a bit overwhelming. Some families are the traditional mom, dad & kids, while other families are headed up by a single parent, or a parent and grandparent, or no parents at all and the grandparents are raising the grandkids.

Another family definition is the relationships of like-minded people that bond together. Such as a Christian family, or a group of bikers that have been riding together for years and years, or any other group of like-minded people that gather together and enjoy one another's company. We often call one another "family" even though we're not related biologically.

The description of "family" that I read on the cover of the photo album is fairly accurate, on the best of days, in the best of families. However, it really isn't all that accurate in reality. In real families, there are times of stress, times of extreme disagreement, rebellion, denial, arguments and more. That doesn't really make for a nice looking photo album cover though, does it?

In reality, nearly every day, someone in the family might say something or do something that doesn't fit well with someone else in the family. It may be small or insignificant (such as licking the knife then sticking it back into the peanut butter jar - eww, GROSS!) or it may be huge, like announcing they've decided to deny the faith they were raised in. The latter is a reality for many Christian families and a most heartbreaking situation.

How do we deal with these things? Do we rant and rave, scream and yell, throw our hands up in the air and/or run out the door? Well, some folks certainly do that, but it doesn't really resolve anything does it? While sometimes it's good to put some distance between ourselves and the stressful situation (time to think, time to pray, time to address the situation with a cool head), reacting with high emotion like that is never useful.

Instead, I believe in a family (of any kind) the best response is communication. I know a million books have been written on the importance of this aspect of relationships, but that's because it is critically important for healthy relationships. What I mean by that is not just talking, but really hearing what the other person is saying. I was talking with a pastor friend about this just the other day and I really liked what he said about this. Instead of trying to address what may be a list of grievances, he suggested that we listen to what the person is actually saying. i.e., "you hurt my feelings" or "I don't think you care about me". Sometimes those things are hidden behind criticism or complaints about other things. I'm sure I've thought about it this way before but it was a good reminder to really try hard to hear what's being said and address that, rather than argue fine points which may end up getting you nowhere.

Healthy communication isn't easy, and it doesn't really come naturally to most people. Most of us tend to want to defend ourselves rather than hear what's being said and respond with humility. After being a parent for 26+ years, I'm still learning how to best respond to my kids when an issue of tension comes up. After being a Christian for 15 years, I'm also still learning how to respond with a Biblical frame of mind. It's real work, to communicate without putting yourself first (which we're all prone to do). However, the work is pivotal, and ability to truly listen well is a goal we all need to aim for so that the photo album cover definition of family can truly be applied to our relationships. It's a good definition, and it's a real blessing to be in that comfy place of family unity and a heartful of fond memories.

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