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Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Family That Shouts Together Stays Together

The highly readable posts keep coming from Maria Benet as she hoofs about through London. I particularly admire her ability to leapfrog from the travelogue right into something reflective and personally revealing. Take this, for example:

”I believe that Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike. (I do not have the book handy, so I am carrying on here, based on an assumption.) Unhappiness, its particular edge or depth, is what makes a family unique. Unhappiness, then, is the stuff of family histories. But what exactly is the definition of an unhappy family ... well, aside from the obvious in which the brute force abuse erodes everyone’s soul?

The other day, while I was sitting on a bench at Westminster Abbey, waiting for my husband, I watched a family of four -- mother, father, daughter and son -- take a break for lunch. From their almost identical backpacks, they each pulled out the same see-through blue plastic container. Mother and father and daughter took out the same carefully sliced triangles of sandwiches made from the same dark bread. The son pulled out a rice cake, but aside from that rice cake, everything else in his lunch box, such as fruit and some bar, was identical to that of the others in the family. They ate in silence, and they appeared to finish together, as if on cue.

I thank the fates, as well as my rebellious streak, that I could never be the one with enough foresight to buy a set of plastic containers and fill them by the numbers with a meal that contains the right amount of fiber for everyone’s bowel health. I thank the same fates that the four us can rarely agree when and what to eat, and that when we do, we never eat in silence. At any moment, if asked, one of us might declare -- and with great passion, too -- that yes, we are terribly unhappy. At times, we might even cry out together to let the world know -- in case it is not obvious enough -- that we are miserable in each other’s company. And yet, even in those darker moments, or when we go about imagining a happier family life, whatever we conjure from the depths of our discontent, I can assure you, it doesn’t include matching plastic containers, high-fiber bread, or silence.”

Her family sounds somewhat like mine. When we’re together, the one thing you definitely will not hear is silence. To the outsider, observing from the sidelines, we might appear at times to be a family in crisis—shouts, protestations, a general cacophony.

But as Maria well knows, I’m sure, these are not sounds of dysfunction, but of joy and delight in each other’s existence even while, momentarily, we might be wishing for the disappearance of one or all of the others. If that sounds mutually exclusive, believe me, it isn’t.

My wife, who’s a highly regarded marriage and family therapist, says that silence is usually a warning sign of trouble. Silence can be a manifestation of secrets, and secrets are poison in the family setting. Or it can be a suppression of feelings—a practice most definitely not conducive to individual or family health.

Boisterousness and open discord, on the other hand, are more often than not the signs of the absence of secrets or suppressed feelings. The absence of these means that everyone is free to be—and is being--who he or she is—the very essence of group health.

For me, having an open and unencumbered family life is worth the risk of appearing a bit crazy at times to the outside world.


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