Families Aren’t Perfect But They’re the Best Thing We Have

“Older adults who have more family — or close relationships to their family — in their social network live longer, according to a study presented this week at the American Sociological Association’s 111th annual meeting in Seattle. However, having large groups of friends or close relationships with friends doesn’t prolong your life.” (The surprising thing that can shorten older people’s lives, MarketWatch)

So if your goal is to live as long as you possibly can, I suppose you should spend more time with family and less time with friends. How’s that make you feel?

The study’s finding doesn’t surprise me, Vera. Of course, it means you should spend as much time with your grandparents as possible! But given you can’t drive and we can, I suppose the onus is on us.

Seriously, though, I’m not surprised by the findings of this study because of one simple fact: families are forever — well, blood families, that is. No matter what, they’re ours and we are theirs. It’s the only thing in life with such permanency.

We’re even stuck with their DNA, just like you’re stuck with ours, Vera. We are inextricably bound, for better or for worse.

I consider myself lucky to have been reared in a large extended family. Our nuclear family was small (just two siblings); however, my father (your great-grandfather, Vera) was one of twelve. That made for a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins. I loved our summer family reunions. (And my Aunt Marian’s amazing pies and Aunt Polly and Aunt June’s incredible fudge!)

Overall, everyone got along pretty well. Sure, there were some spats along the way, but no one ever seemed to hold a grudge, although that changed later in life when the pressures of death, dying and inheritance put strains on some of the relationships. But from a kid’s perspective growing up, it was a close-knit group who you always knew would be there for one another. There was something deeply comforting and reassuring about that.

We don’t have family reunions anymore. The aging process and funerals have taken their toll. I miss them.

But I still enjoy seeing family, even the ones whom I rarely encounter. I wish I could see them more often, but we’re spread out. That’s one of the unfortunate aspects of modern-day living and the mobility we now have.

It’s not that we’re all the same. Far from it! Some of us have vastly different beliefs and opinions. It doesn’t matter.

My own brother (your great uncle) and I are as far apart in our political views as two people can get. So what?! We are brothers. We love each other, and I enjoy being in his company. That’s the thing about family.

Contrast that with friendships. I’m lucky: we have some wonderful friends. We don’t see some of our Pennsylvania friends often since we moved to Colorado, but they’ll always be close friends.

We also have some dear new friends in Colorado. We have neighbors across the street who are as close to family as one can get (probably closer than some).

But we had other friends who weren’t. A few of our neighbors are no longer speaking to us. I suppose they weren’t really friends after all, although, I confess, I had thought they were. They’re shunning us now. From my perspective (but, obviously, not theirs), it’s truly silly. They wanted to post signs prohibiting nonresidents from walking on our HOA’s walkways. Along with other members of our HOA’s board, I opposed their initiative. I didn’t see the problem; I didn’t mind nonresidents walking through our neighborhood. And I didn’t want to create a snotty or exclusive neighborhood. I thought we should foster community, not try to erect barriers.

A couple of our neighbors didn’t agree, so now they’re angry and they’re pouting. And no longer talking to us. I can’t imagine that would happen with family. Family might fight (hopefully, only verbally) and they might pout for a while, but in the end they’d get over it.

Now, I realize that’s not the case with all families. As a lawyer, I’ve seen the worst that families can give. They can be vicious to each other. Vindictive. Greedy. Selfish. Cruel. Violent. They can be as bad as it can get.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it usually isn’t.

I also like the way you can be grafted onto another person’s family. Marriage is the most common means. A new family is created when you marry. Many last; many don’t. Ours has. I suppose we’re luckier than most.

So now I’m part of another family. We call them in-laws, but I don’t like that term because it implies second-class status. In my experience, no second-class status is warranted. They’re family. They mean that much to me.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the distance separating us from most of our family — the ones with blood ties as well as some of our friends whom I think of as family (they’re that close). I’ve been thinking about the distance between you (Vera) and us. This thinking may lead to nothing, but I’m not sure.

The referenced study will play no role in any of this. I’m not obsessed with longevity, and I hope I never am.

I prefer the philosophy of now-deceased Carnegie-Mellon professor Randy Paunch (1960-2008), who said, “We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.” (As an aside, I highly recommend watching The Last Lecture)

The words of the famous Stoic Seneca ring true to me as well: “The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.”

Is family essential to living well? I used to think not. I’m no longer certain.

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