uring this season of remembering and honoring our ancestors and the Beloved Dead, and in the festivals that come after for many of us – the holiday season proper – it is unavoidable to think about family, and for many of us, those thoughts are not happy ones, and they are not simple. It can be a time of loneliness and despair, rather than cheer and solace; or it can be a mixed bag of both in such a way that leaves us profoundly confused. If the unfolding season leaves so many people despondent, confused or alone with respect to family, that is because family really is a confusing and complicated thing. So many of us simply do not have families to turn to. Or if we do have families, so many others have relationships straining to the breaking point. Or others may even have no relationship: for how can a relationship be cultivated between people who stand on different sides of what seems to be a great unbridgeable chasm?
No wonder that, as soon as the times of coming together begin, so many of us withdraw, out of genuine need for protection, simply because when it came to family, we did not seem to luck out.
We have a saying in my family: we say “in-laws and outlaws” when lovingly referring to the extended family. You try to find a way to laugh, because sometimes that’s the only thing you can do, short of moaning. I’ve got some salty stories to tell about the generations way back, let me tell you, and I bet I’m not the only one. I’ve lost count of so many people who have a history of cruelty and violence in their family, a history that forces them to keep their distance at all costs. How do we honor such truths, and how do we tell such stories? Aren’t they better left unsaid and forgotten?
A Sacred Arts perspective on the whole problem of family begins with the community of the living and the dead, the past, present and future. It begins from the vantage point of the whole, which for us is like gazing at the radiant sky and earth on clear and starry night. What might we learn if we start here? No matter what form family takes, no matter what it looks like at present, everyone has a family, and that means everyone has stories worth telling and listening to. Stories are healing, and so that means that we don’t have to go very far to let the healing begin.
The dead are all-too-easily forgotten – even the ones that deserve to be remembered. Out of sight, out of mind. So when we think of family, we tend to let only what we see and touch orient us. But if we start with the whole, family is not necessarily made up of people we can always touch and see with our eyes, nor are they necessarily related by blood. Not only in space, but even far away in time do they dwell. The living and the dead make up our family. What this means for us is that there is a tremendous wellspring of strength from which to draw, starting with this enlarged sense of family.
One of the delightful older stories (it comes from the writings of Plato) has family and friends meet in the afterlife for what looks like a festival. Before moving on to the next phase of their journey, they pass their time strolling about together at leisure sharing stories with one another about their experiences. Can you imagine getting all your people together to share stories? What an interesting and raucous time that would be – it would be a story in itself. If family is a mess, it is a divine sort of mess.
We wish our family could be the ones that care for us, laugh and cry with us, and love us always and no matter what. We wish all of our ancestors are the ones who stand behind us with their hands placed ever so gently upon our back and shoulders urging us forward, encouraging us to dream bigger and go farther than ever.