Sunday, June 16, 2013


This weekend I ran into two sports-related stories with intriguing references to family. The first was a piece about Yankee's closer Mariano Rivera. He's a devout Christian with a close connection to a small faith community in Westchester County. He talks in the story about going on vacation with 40-50 people. He says he takes the whole family - and he doesn't mean only blood relations. His spiritual mentors and those with whom he lives and worships are included. There's no difference.

ESPN Magazine featured an article about Steelers Safety Troy Palomalu, particularly about his financial life. He's joined an investment group where four well-off families have pooled their money. In contrast to many professional athletes who spend away millions with amazing speed, Polamalu hasn't even touched his salary. He lives on an allowance from the investment earnings of the collaboration. These families have tied themselves and their wealth to each other. It's a family connection - they say as much about each other.

We're drawn to this idea of family, even beyond our blood and marital relations, it's something inherent in all of us. Even the most introverted among us doesn't really want to be alone (not all the time, anyway)- we want to be understood.

That's really quite different from being included or even valued.

We want a family that will accept us for who we are. Polamalu's "family" tells him no when he wants to invest in stupid things. Most athletes employ yes-men who tell them what they want to hear. You could say one is looking out for themselves, the other is valuing a friend.

I'm not sure it's that cut and dry.

In spite of this concern for the other, there's still an underlying theme of disconnect. It's explicit towards the end of the Polamalu article - one of the partners says basically, "if we don't like what he's doing, we can kick him out. We won't; he's family. But we could."

This is short of family. Rivera makes clear that his "family" is family precisely because they remained when they, by all rights, should have kicked him out. It might help that he's got hundreds of millions of dollars, but I believe it goes beyond just self-interest.

Most of the time, when we're doing something stupid, when we need to be put in our place, we know it. Even when we're unwilling to be corrected or to listen to others, we know what's up - we're just stubborn. We recognize people are trying to look out for us, but we're just unwilling to be looked after.

Some of that is stubbornness. Some of it is prioritizing immediate gratification. But I suspect a lot of it is just a feeling of disconnection. If you're not sure someone really understands you, you just can't trust they've got your best interests in mind.

We often say "family is family" or "blood is thicker than water" or whatever expression we want to convey that family knows best, can be relied on, knows each other, etc. It's sometimes true. A lot of times, it's not. Families, quite often, are pretty disfunctional. The families we make for each other can be that way too.

As much as we want to be know, to be understood, we also don't want that. We want enough distance we can ignore or avoid "family." We don't like being connected to people, to be vulnerable to people, to be dependent.

I'd like to say I'm often asked to define family (it would be a great rhetorical device here); I'm not. I do think about it from time to time.

The more I think about it, the more I want to say: family is simply people who really know each other. Not people who are familiar (family-like) or people who know a lot about each other. Family is people who know each other. People who may disagree, fight, argue, and whatnot, but people who get what it means to be you in the same way you get what it means to be you.

Family is scary, but I don't think we'll get very far without it.

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