Saturday, November 08, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1081 - Family Values

Warning! This post contains opinions (a sure sign that I am finally beginning to feel better - at least for today).

I suppose it was inevitable. Obama is elected President of the United States, thereby unleashing a torrent of hope and optimism, as well as unrealistic expectations. But to counterbalance that, Florida, California, and Arizona voters decide to outlaw gay marriage, resulting in anguish, resignation, and inappropriate fundamentalist exultation.

Cynics might think of this odd scenario in the United States as a conciliatory tradeoff to ease the pain of the transition from a southern religious right domination of political power to a northern liberal democrat ascendancy, the offer being a conservative preservation of the traditional term "marriage" for heterosexual unions only.

I have mixed opinions about the significance of the "Proposition-8" type election results.

As an historian, I readily acknowledge that language is not static, that words like marriage and family have changed and will continue to change as cultures and societies evolve. The suggestion that "marriage" has meant the same thing for all time is lunacy. In fact, part of the pleasure of the study of history is the discovery that appearances are deceptive, that the connotations of words that are apparently universal were not so in reality, and that the context of social institutions must be examined carefully to discover what those institutions really meant.

On the other hand, I also appreciate the importance of new words which help distinguish older and newer meanings. I understand that the word "marriage" isn't as precise as it might be to identify the recognition of committed relationships among gay partners. On the other hand, "union" seems sketchy at best, not even coming close to highlighting the commitment, responsibilities and, yes, rights of same-sex partnerships.

In addition to questions about the meaning of words, we have the more important political issue of doing the right thing and providing appropriate legal recognition of "special" relationships in regards to property, estate, health benefits, and so on.

What does any of this have to do with cancer?

One of the things you will hear cancer patients talking about is "family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances". We use different words to categorize our relationship with those who provide (or don't provide) support to us in our journeys with cancer. Why we do so, at least in part, is to distinguish those in our circle of influence and affection. Traditional distinctions point to expectations and the anticipated depth of supportive relationships.

But cancer (and other life-threatening diseases) often surprise us. Who "shows up" and the support offered are often at odds with expectations.

My own experience has fostered the opinion that what matters most is not family per se, but the choices made by other people to become your family during the journey (some people have suggested the word framily to distinguish these kinds of relationships).

People who have chosen to provide me with regular, visceral, and dependable support often come from outside blood ties. My wife's two sisters, for example, have been outstanding (I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, though, since they were all raised in the same household). My life-long and long-term friends have been extraordinary companions. My colleagues, current and past, have blessed me greatly.

It's the choice, the commitment, that is important. Family values matter, but it is the choice to become and remain a family member that is significant.


Brie said...

Enjoyed your musings on the definition of marriage, and the meaning of the word "family". Neither has been any more static over the course of human history than anything in life is. It all flows, changes, adapts, evolves ....

Thinking of you .... and moved by your musings and use of the language ... and thinking of you more as you head for your next round of chemo


Don Spencer said...

Hi Brie,

Today is a milestone for me. Getting to the point where we are actually moving ahead into the 2nd treatment seems like winning a hard-fought battle or completing a difficult term at university.

Speaking of university days, I miss some of the social history that I read in the early 80s, especially the history of the family in England. I'm convinced that general exposure that material of that kind would change the minds of many people about the entire "family values" debates. Once you realize the inevitability of change and the importance of historical context, your own personal choices can focus more on your values rather than your traditions. That, I think, would be a good thing for everyone.

Thanks for writing, Brie. Hope there are occasions for a coffee, tea, or wine in the not-too-distant future.