The Personalist Project

A friend of mine and her husband are in the process--and have been for some time--of extricating themselves from a tangled web of dysfunctional family dynamics. I've been blessed with a remarkably sane family (weird, but sane), and our conversations often drift into trying to identify the fundamental differences underlying surface similarities between our families.

Most recently, we were talking about what it meant to have a "strong family identity" in these different families.

Almost immediately, I noticed that in comparison to my friend's experiences, my family talked very little about "what it means to be a Whittaker." Our family identity and culture is an organic reflection of who we are--a combination of the things our parents brought into marriage with them and the traditions, principles, and habits that we developed together as a family in response to the people we are and the ways we interact.

My friend, in comparison, spoke about families where family identity was consciously shaped and imposed from above, extending into adult life. This kind of imposed identity and culture is used as a coercive tool of inclusion and exclusion—"In our family, we do things this way"—with the implicit message that to fail to meet those standards is to no longer belong as fully to the family.

I've asked other friends about family identity and found strikingly similar patterns, not only in families, but also in the intentional communities founded by the previous generation.

In case after case, individuals experience themselves as having their identity as a member of a family or a community presented to them as pre-determined, creating conflict when the individual has difficulty conforming or finds that they differ on a matter of principle with the community.

Last year I wrote on my personal blog about the pressure we sometimes put on ourselves when we try to incorporate every appealing tradition we hear or read of into our own family lives. 

About my own experience trying to do it all during one particular Advent, I wrote:

"I came from a family background rich in our own traditions, but when I was away from that organic context, I felt a little lost, and I tried to remedy that feeling of loss by cramming in more. More traditions, more family. I didn't have my own family of origin around to reinforce the things I had to pass on to my children, so I found myself aping the traditions and rituals of other families that seemed to have what I wanted for myself and my kids."

In order to find a balance that "fit" my own small family, I had to look at which traditions had real meaning and significance to us, and let go of those that were less personally resonant or too much extra effort. I'll gladly spend a day making speculaas dough for the Feast of St. Nicholas, because it combines the Dutch heritage I have from my mother with my children's love of baking with me, molding shapes out of the pliable dough. It fits us in a way making a candle wreath and breakfast for St. Lucy's day simply doesn't.

It occurs to me that perhaps the phenomenon of imposed family identity, imposed and entrenched family culture, comes from a similar place as my frenzy to imitate the traditions of other families. As populations became more mobile and families more fractured, more and more young men and women have found themselves launching into the world feeling rootless and deprived of the warmth, stability, and security they naturally crave.

Just as I went overboard, trying too hard to give my kids more when I was distant from my family, these men and women went into adulthood wanting more for themselves and their children. What didn't come organically to them, they sought to create artificially. And with the culture wars being fought on every side, they found many people willing to tell them what family life and community life "ought" to look like; who they ought to strive to be.

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