In all its forms, I value family immensely. Nuclear family, extended family, cousins adopting children or marrying to take on step-children, mixed families with step-siblings, and even marrying into a family of in-laws and gaining nieces and nephews–I have experienced all of this and have felt a true connection with people who are related to me in any way.
Also, I have had friends make me feel welcome in the midst of their families. In high school, one buddy of mine had me come to his house every day after school because there was no bus that went from my private school all the way to the town where I lived. I spent a few hours after school each day in a wonderful home with gracious parents and grandparents, and they often insisted that I have dinner with them when my mother worked late. When my friend’s college-aged sisters came home for a weekend or holiday, they would essentially treat me as another teenaged brother. I know and love the people in this family even until this day.
A few years ago, my life circumstances changed and I wanted to live close to where I worked. Two of my close friends were a married couple with grown children. They rented me a room, but they made me feel much more important than a mere lodger. For nearly a year, we had dinner together nearly every night. They included me in holidays and family events. They literally shared their home with me.
Nowadays, I live alone. I have a friend in town who, with several other of our crew, has dinner at my place many Friday evenings. In December, he noticed that my Christmas tree had gone undecorated for two weeks. While I told him of my plans to take care of it during the next few days, he insisted on bringing his wife and children over to do it for me. And yesterday, the day after Easter, he brought me along with his family on an outing to one of my favorite places in the world–the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow put forth in the 1940’s his concept of a hierarchy of human needs. We grow and develop, Maslow said, by meeting needs on one level, then proceeding to a higher level for human growth. On a basic level, for example, we need food, clothing, and shelter; from there, we seek safety. With these survival needs met, we can move on to belongingness, to status, to aesthetic needs, and ultimately to self-actualization.
Family can give us the sense of belonging that occupies such a critical level in Maslow’s hierarchy. For this reason, so much depends on family for a person’s proper development and growth. A dysfunctional family can put an individual at a brutal disadvantage; a properly loving and nurturing one can make all the difference.
This remains much on my mind as I think of people who have opened their homes and families to me during my life. Above all, I feel grateful to have them as friends. But I also think of how fortuitous it has been that I have had additional family contexts that could reinforce the idea that I was loved and that I belonged. All three of these families just happened–sometimes with full knowledge, sometimes unwittingly–to provide this reinforcement just as other important structures in my life could no longer hold, and I needed to make important adjustments. I was not necessarily thinking in terms of Maslovian psychology in these instances, but as I sit at my desk now and reflect on it all, I can see that I am indeed fortunate and blessed.
We human beings have such shortcomings and foibles. It only stands to reason that no family is perfect. But we must also acknowledge that families take on many paradigms and configurations; they arise from varying circumstances. Harmony need not always prevail; common blood need not be the unifying conceit.
Only, let there be some form of family for everyone.