Everybody Has a Family
By JIM NICHOLS
At a holiday time it is a question asked innocently. “Will you be traveling to see family?”
I asked my young friend and there was a pause that made me realize that might not have been a good question. His response was, “On the first day I’ll be with my mother and family in one city and on the second day with my father and others in another city.” Stuck out there without an appropriate response, I said, “Will that be a good situation or a negative situation?” After another pause, he replied, “Mixed.”
My hunch is that a similar conversation will occur multiple times during this holiday time. It may even occur when we are the person responding rather than the one initiating it. There are few truly common activities in which we humans are involved, but one is that each of us has family. There is a vast variety of types and the qualities of each may have changed drastically over the years, but we all know about the idea. For many of us, the serious thought of “family” brings up memories we would like to avoid as well as others that we cherish. It is, indeed, a complicated concept. It is more than a concept, however; it is a drama in which each of us is a player.
In biology class we talk a lot about ecosystems. This describes an area, a volume, or a space in which we would like to consider the forms of life and how they interact with one another and their inanimate surroundings. A pond may be an ecosystem, a lake, a forest, a cubic inch of soil, or even a continent. Regardless of size, each ecosystem contains certain similar and predictable interactions between plants, animals, and microbes.
Among the most interesting aspects of ecosystems is their remarkable balance and resilience. The organisms demonstrate clear dependence on one another. Absolute numbers of each organism may fluctuate, but there is a strong tendency for them to balance out given enough time. It is as if when one piece of the ecosystem bends one way, another piece bends another way in response. You can easily see the potential parallels to family dynamics.
When you walk down your own block, you have no way of knowing what is going on behind those walls. Some of it may be wonderful and some distressful. They are both components of that family ecosystem. Frederick Buechner thoughtfully says, “It is not so much that things happen in a family as it is that the family is the things that happen to it.”
Living in a part of the country where the wind blows strongly often, I am fascinated by how spiders build and maintain webs. Relative to the size of a spider, the web is expansive. Meticulously moving across the available space between some rigid supports, the spider stretches and constructs its web gradually. Even in a high wind, the web remains undisturbed. It is another example of resilience that we see in the created world.
An ecosystem is often referred to as a web and the term also fits a family. As you gaze at those family photos distributed at holiday time, whether it is our own family or another’s, we realize there are unrepresented feelings, fears, excitements, and even secrets.
Recognizing that, however, we also understand that those people are, in fact, at that moment in the same place at the same time and something has drawn them there.
The Bible is full of “family talk.” This is clearly an important concept of God’s creation. We see stories of individual families and nation-families, all with the positive and negative aspects we understand from our own families.
Though I am impressed with the strength of a spider’s web, I am more struck with the holding power of a family. Even when the teenager has disappeared emotionally or physically for a long time, a song or scene can trigger a draw to the past. When a member has been lost to death, only the physical presence is gone—the rest all remains.
Perhaps the peace we talk about so much during this season should settle into us the value of our family—past, present, and future.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
Holidays can be very stressful within our individual family dynamics. They do bring up so many memories and disappointments if we don’t focus on the positives.