Tolstoy once wrote that all happy families are alike. He went on to say that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Now, I’m not familiar at all with the mechanics of Russian family life in the 1800s but I know that Count Leo was onto something.
I’ve been around for over half a century now and I’ve been in hundreds of homes and seen the interactions of people bound by blood. Suffice to say, the enormity of emotional scale is spectacular. I’ve been in homes where silence rules, where anger simmers under everything and conversely, sat with families that awed me with their simple and abundant love for each other. I’ve carried something away from all of them.
See, my family history has been hard. I was separated from my biological family as a toddler. When I came back to them 24 years later, we all had to relearn each other. Each of us had experienced a plethora of pain and broken trusts and when we re-established our family ties we bore all of that back into the mix. So our reconnection experience has been pretty glum.
My adopted family life was horrendous. I was placed with a staunch and strict Presbyterian family who knew nothing of native history, spirituality, tradition or culture. They also knew nothing of the abuse I’d suffered that made separating me from my native family necessary. I never fit there. But typical of the square-peg, round-hole philosophy they tried to make me fit. All that effort only ever engendered separation and I ran away as soon as I could.
As I matured and found relationships, I became a part of other families. In my first marriage I saw an extraordinary family who genuinely cared about each other. I’ve also seen others that make me feel as though mine was not all that bad. Tolstoy was apparently right. They are all unhappy in their own way. But we sat on our deck talking with a good friend recently. He talked about his family. He talked about a legacy of pain and frustration that seems bound to continue into another generation.
He’s not a native man. He’s South African by birth. He’s not someone who you’d see on the street and categorize as conflicted. Instead, he’s terrifically funny, whip smart, open minded, adventurous, opinionated and very engaged with the world. He’s a teacher and to all appearances, living one of those set down kinds of lives everyone wants to have. When he told us his story I was dumfounded.
He spoke of separation, of great gulfs existing between brothers, of extraordinary differences in world view and the approach to living. He talked of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual hurts that created gaps that are seemingly impossible to bridge. He spoke of hurts that tear people apart and of feeling like his people were strangers to him. He talked quietly with the full honest weight of his story on his shoulders and when he looked at us, squarely and honestly, we could see the wounds in him.
There’s a terrific soul pain that comes from not being able to touch those you’re joined to. I know this all too well. There’s also a certain diminishing of the spirit arising from feeling like an orphan, of not really belonging anywhere, to anyone. I understood all of that because my family is the same way. We hurt in the exact same way. So in the end, maybe Tolstoy had it skewed. Maybe sad families are more alike than we think and if that’s the case, then there’s something we can do about it to help each other.
When there’s pain in our lives, we all have the tendency to believe that we’re the only ones. That seems to be symptomatic of everyone’s hurt. So we keep it to ourselves out of embarrassment or shame. When we do that we put ourselves out of reach of those who might help us. Sitting on the deck, hearing my friend’s story, feeling the waves of empathy, understanding and compassion that flowed through me, I came to realize again, that we can create family with anyone.
Because we all need a place to share. We all need compassion. I’ve talked my way through incredible hurts and now I can listen openly when someone else shares their story – and in the end that’s how we heal. Through sharing and through listening. We sit around the rooms of our lives and hear each other. We go through the motions of our living and share what comes from that.
You don’t need blood to get you there. We are a human family, first and foremost. Our common experience is the foundation of our common future. We need to keep each other close and build a noble family history.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from
Doubleday. He can be reached