What is a Family Anyway?

What, exactly, does one mean when using the word “family”? Is it people we work with? Could it be those we see every day in our neighborhoods or perhaps our best buddies and confidants?  Maybe what pops into our thoughts first, when hearing the word family are visuals of the ones who attend the same meaningful religious/spiritual events as we do or even more likely our “blood kin”?

Interestingly, the “F word” was also widely used to reference members of notorious gang/mob connections in The Godfather feature-length crime film series.  (For those who are not familiar with the Godfather films, they were released in the years 1972, 1974 and 1990) But I’m guessing that most people inclined to read this piece would not have the “mob” connotation with the word. It does seem clear, though, that in today’s world, those we call family extends beyond people who may live in the same household.

Out of curiosity, I researched other definitions. I have to admit, I was shocked to find this current definition in an online Urban Dictionary: A bunch of people who hate each other and eat dinner together. Yikes! It certainly gives one pause to consider one’s personal belief and subsequent definition and maybe to reconsider how we use the term family.

By far, the predominant definitions found in online references depict a variety of Western cultural versions like the following graphic obtained via Google.

Family AnimatedI’m sure you know the illusion- female mom, male dad, 1.5 kids, pets, 2 car garage, picket fence etc. That all sounds great, but definitely not universally applicable in my every day world. The universal family glue, at least in my mind, is where there is love enough to support each other through thick and thin, life and death, etc.

Many families these days are adoptive kin. Lots of families are one parent households and, when you dare ask, yes, pets are members of the family too.  Recent reports declare an increasing numbers of same sex adoptive parents. In my many-years-ago young adult world, there were only two options: the family of origin one is born into where the really hard work of being human is exemplified and the rule of sticking together was firmly stretched; and then and the family of choice where one’s personal paradigms and philosophies could be mirrored in non threatening ways. It was the latter that ultimately surfaced for me when contemplating my version of family.

My own family illusion and, indeed, my entire world fell apart in 1976 when divorce was necessary. My family of origin verbally condemned me to hell as my immediate family then became only three-me and my two young daughters, Lorri and Lesa. I was aware that my own fractured “family” was not in compliance either with society’s norm or my family of origin’s basic Christian values.

By 1990 it became evident to me that the old description of family would never work for me again. In addition to being a child of divorced parents, my gay daughter felt totally rejected by everyone in our “family” except her sister and me.

As a result, I felt forced to focus deeply inside in an effort to discover what being a family truly means. The answer uniquely appeared on Thanksgiving, 1991 when I was temporarily displaced from my home in East Tennessee due to work demands. Now in Jacksonville, Florida, I was on call 24/7 so travel for the holidays was not an option for me. That provided an easy explanation/excuse for my absence from the traditional family tribe gathering and offered more solitude for my inner searching.

Both my daughters, now adults, had completed a 28 day rehab program for codependency and substance abuse several months earlier which prompted serious self evaluation for all of us. The healing process seemed to require total transformation to salvage our tiny family unit now each living alone in different geographical locations.

We were all emotionally raw and feeling the desire for the comfort and the warmth of belonging somewhere – anywhere that we could give and receive love. Lorri was now in her California residence (not a chance of being with her this holiday anyway). Lesa had resumed her life in North Alabama, a drivable distance from me. It seemed we all needed family more than ever.

After much thought, I invited Lesa to drive down and spend Thanksgiving with me. My thinking was that we would find a restaurant somewhere in order to medicate on good food and then we could phone Lorri for some time to continue sharing our recovery experiences. Lesa agreed to come but she had another idea. She suggested that since Twelve Step meetings had become such an important part of our individual healing processes that maybe we could find a group meeting on Thanksgiving. Hmm, that would be a very different holiday experience.

For anyone not familiar with Twelve Step programs, Wikipedia has a brief beginning summary of tenants offered by the American Psychological Association:

  • Admitting that one cannot control one’s alcoholism, addiction or compulsion;
  • Recognizing a higher power that can restore sanity;
  • Examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member);
  • Making amends for these errors;
  • Learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior;
  • Helping others who suffer from the same alcoholism, addictions or compulsions.

The more we talked about it, the more it seemed an excellent option as it would offer a clear opportunity to stop the insanity of the past where everyone eats together and pretends to be happy. Insanity is popularly defined in 12 Steps as doing the same thing, the same way, all the time, and expecting different results. This new holiday meal choice would definitely shift us away from previous habitual family gatherings.

Before Lesa’s arrival, I discovered an open invitation on a local bulletin board to join a cooperative celebration with other twelve steppers in a “bring a covered dish” lunch. It seemed perfect!

We found the address and walked hesitantly, yet expectantly and courageously, into a warehouse-type social hall with maybe 50 total strangers. Instantly we received a wave of warm verbal greetings like “Happy Thanksgiving. We’re glad you’re here!” The sweet fanciful placard below gives a taste of the initial feelings.

Such warm salutations shone through light-filled smiling faces and some came with the offer of a hug. Never before, in all my years of previously gathering with biological family members for this occasion, had I ever felt genuinely appreciated simply for showing up as on this day in this group of unknowns.

We took a few deep breaths and dived into this sea of unfamiliar faces. First we made a 12 Step traditional hand-holding circle and collectively repeated the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

As the day together progressed we ate, talked, laughed, and shared our own individual recovery stories to offer encouragement, strength, and hope to each other. No probing questions were posed. Not one whisper of advice was offered to or from anyone.

We had already individually, collectively and verbally agreed that healing is an inside job. How great it felt to be in a group of people who totally understood the emotional and psychological rawness, the desire for acceptance, and the need for the encouragement and courage to continue our respective healing journeys into wholeness and a healthy way of living.  And that became a new definition of family for me.

When the day was complete, Lesa and I reflected with Lorri about our experiences. We agreed that we felt more resonant with this “family of choice” today than with any other gathering of people with whom we had previously shared a holiday meal.

There are many facets involved in bringing people together to experience harmony, support, and acceptance void of love based upon meeting specific conditions. True family seems primarily a matter of perspective based on heart resonance. I’m pretty sure the specifics differ relative primarily to the state of awareness and stage of healing in an individual.

Certainly when I made a basic choice to simply love my family of origin without expectations, I felt strong enough within myself to truly accept them just the way they are. Funny, it seems to work reciprocally too.

For me, personally, follow up healing required that I also shift my old beliefs in relation to how I perceived my mother role with my daughters. I had reared them feeling as if they were an extension of me. Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese prophet/poet/philosopher (1883-1930) provided a new and welcome perspective when he wrote the following quote in his book The Prophet:

Khalil Gibran Quote

Once I finally recognized that the lives Lorri and Lesa choose to live are not really my business, I could release the idea that it was my job to offer my version of wisdom advice and trust that their intelligence and inner wisdom would guide them competently.

Wanda Gail with daughters

Now I allow myself to extend advice only upon request. And, after many years along this human journey together, the three of us learned how to be a real family more aligned with love, acceptance, and with the ability and desire to be emotionally supportive. The photo above, taken on a recent happy occasion, by my husband, Mike, (who is now a deserving addition into our basic family unit though not pictured) says volumes about our current closeness and joy. I think I can safely say that our new definition of family really works!

Wanda Gail Campbell

Wanda has served thirty plus years as a healthcare professional. Currently, she serves as a Minister of Peace ordained by The Beloved Community. In July, 2007 she completed her PhD in Philosophy focused on Intercultural Peacemaking. For her own spiritual nourishment, she enjoys reading both contemporary and ancient spiritual writings.


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