Family Isn’t Really Everything

I have never been one to shy away from addressing controversial topics. I’ve probably made more enemies than friends in my life and I have become something of an expert on the art of burning bridges. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sadist or a narcissist; it’s just that when I learned in elementary parochial school that lying is a sin, I took that to heart, perhaps to a degree that most people are not comfortable with. I’d rather be honest and hurt someone’s feelings than fraudulently lead them to believe something that isn’t true. With that being said, I’d like to comment for a few moments on the topic of family; more specifically, I’d like to make it clear that in my 36 years of living and observing, I have come to a rather indisputable conclusion that the phrase “family is everything” is a complete fallacy, bordering on the idolatrous.

I love my family; most of them. Well, that’s not quite true. I love some of them and I tolerate most of them. Even that isn’t quite true. I love enough of them to count on one hand and I endure the presence of the rest of them during obligatory get-togethers. I have long said that I wouldn’t associate with most people in my family if they weren’t related to me. I don’t think I’m saying anything that most people wouldn’t agree with privately—and those of you who are feigning outrage by that statement are completely full of shit. You know damn well that if you thought of ten people in your family and imagined that you weren’t related to them, you would never intentionally associate with at least seven of those ten people. It isn’t that we need to hate or despise these people; it’s just that they are perhaps so fundamentally different from us that we would never have reason to converse with them outside of obligatory settings.

I’m a native New Yorker; like most people who grew up in New York City, I’m a private person. I wear sunglasses in public, day or night, and I almost always have earbuds in when I’m confined to public spaces such as airplanes, trains or ferries. I’m not a small-talker. I rarely strike up conversation with strangers. I just don’t have that much to say. Aside from deep philosophical conversation, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? I apply this same approach to family members. The concept of gathering a whole slew of people who are arbitrarily related by blood into a finite space for the sake of celebrating an arbitrary occasion (annual holiday, birthday, Hallmark events i.e. weddings, funerals) and engaging in the exact same conversations/reminiscences of old times that have taken place countless times prior is bordering on the definition of insanity, and in my opinion, borders on the definition of hell. It serves no cosmic purpose, it doesn’t even serve an immediate gratifying purpose; it is simply rote, tired and futile. It requires exhausting effort, fake smiles and for those of us who have the cerebral capacity to think and ponder concepts beyond feces jokes and football scores, the act of bringing one’s conversational capabilities down to the level of primates. So why do we do it?

As a spiritual person, I think part of it is due to a superficial attempt by non-spiritual people to fill a void. This void could never be filled by the aforementioned incessant drivel and contrarily, it is frequently worsened by the fact that the conversation almost always leads to conflict via political debate—often with people who are too misinformed to know what they are talking about, but insist that they are right because their favorite Fox News pundit told them what they should say. I am a Christian in that I subscribe to the Christian creed, but I am an existentialist at heart and as such, I tend to see the absolute absurdity of nearly everything. It isn’t a conscious effort; it is simply the result of keen, innate and constant observation. Some might call me an elitist, even a snob for writing these things and I have reached a point in my life where I’m at peace with being called such things because to some degree, I acknowledge that I am those things. Hey, at least I’m honest.

When I see sappy plaques or hear someone say “family is everything,” my immediate thought is “how sad.” From the viewpoint of an existentialist, I suppose family being “everything” for someone would give that person a far more optimistic view of the world than I might have, in that they have something immediate and tangible to give them the sense that their world is complete, while I see the meaninglessness and nothingness of everything around me. But when you really observe the practice of “family” by those individuals, the reality is not so convincing. Conflict, addiction, excessive materialism, rivalries, resentment, hatred of jobs; all of these things are abundant, negating the “everythingness” that family allegedly brings these people. Essentially, they hate their lives but they put on a good face about it. Score them a moral victory for faking it? Not a chance. It is a grand attempt at denying reality, and not even a good one. We, as a society, have erected a system around us that is so fundamentally fucked up and that has been in place for so long that we haven’t a clue how to undo it, so we instead pretend to embrace our self-made prisons. It is a societally-collective version of Stockholm Syndrome.

I will acknowledge that I have been the recipient of assistance from many-a-family member over the years, including some of the individuals I referred to as being merely tolerated by yours truly. I am thankful for their benevolence and I would–and have–returned the favor on occasion. I’m not declaring war on them; I’m simply stating the fact that I can appreciate the actions of a person, as well as their sanctity in the eyes of God, without feeling a need to associate with them. I have no conclusion for this little memorandum because, as I said, I’m a consistent existentialist. We’re all already ashes and dust; we just refuse to acknowledge it. Alas, I’ll end on a positive note in that the Christian in me also acknowledges that despite the utter lack of meaning in all of the nonsense that we consume ourselves with in this world, our souls transcend all of it because our Creator willed it to be so.

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What Are You Looking For?

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In John 1:38, Jesus asks a question of two young men that I believe we all, at one time or another have asked ourselves. “What are you looking for?” So many of life’s greatest artistic and intellectual metaphors and allegories revolve around this very basic, yet very existential question.  From the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia in literature to popular songs like U2’s appropriately named “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” those of us with any degree of spiritual intuition whatsoever have found ourselves asking ourselves this question; some of us, like yours truly are consumed by it.

What are we looking for? What does any of this mean? For many of us who have traveled extensively and lived in myriad diverse places, our travels and life experiences provide us with the insight that is needed to more holistically discern the fact that the answers do not lie in the places themselves. Those of us who have the added bonus of a solid spiritual foundation also become aware that true happiness will never be found in this world. It is easy to see how questions such as these can drive men to madness. In extreme cases it has led brilliant individuals to take their own lives. Perhaps it is the fact that we are created in Imago Dei that renders us incapable of avoiding obsession over wanting to understand and perceive the world as God does; this is what leads many people towards what is known as gnosis—the desire to pursue and comprehend deep spiritual mysteries. Ultimately, this too is a futile pursuit because, try as we might, we can never achieve this noble, though nevertheless inefficacious goal.

So, again I ask, what are we looking for? What is the purpose of life? Is it the pursuit of money? Careerism? A nice house, a car, a spouse, children and a household pet? I’m certainly not going to get on my soapbox and belittle these concepts. Only the individual can answer that question for themselves. But when Jesus asks the question, I have to wonder how one could answer it to His liking when it is evident to the casual observer that the priorities in that person’s life are material, rather than spiritual? Again, I am not looking to condemn anyone, rather I am merely challenging people to look inward as Jesus would have us do, for the sake of our eternal souls. When politics takes precedence over human decency and Christian charity, we become a ship lost at sea as a nation, morally speaking. When saving a few tax dollars is more important than providing basic human needs like food and healthcare to our fellow man, we are abandoning the Gospel message, whether we want to admit it or not. What we do with our lives holds great meaning–at least it ought to. How do we treat our neighbors? Are we quick to offer a helping hand, or are we quick to avert our eyes and walk away? Are we willing to give up everything to follow Jesus and have we even contemplated what that would truly mean?

Jesus asks each of us, “What are you looking for?” Bono acknowledged that Christ “broke the bonds, loosed the chains and carried the cross” to redeem us. He reaffirmed it by saying “you know I believe it,” but then followed that immediately by saying, “but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” I think all of us find ourselves in that position on a daily basis. Intuitively—and for some of us, intellectually—we know that what we are looking for is never going to be found in this world because it simply doesn’t exist in this world. Yet for some reason, we continue to delude ourselves into believing that the happiness that only exists in Heaven lies just around the corner with a new car, a new pair of shoes, perhaps a new house, or in a new city; then we conquer those things by acquiring them and what happens? Do they bring us the bliss that we were certain they would? Never! Because they cannot. Jesus is found in each one of us; we were created in the image of God and He did not mince words when He told us that what we did to the least of His people, we did to Him. We can see Jesus in the faces of our brothers and sisters. Who are our brothers and sisters? All who do God’s will, Jesus tells us (Matthew 12:48-50). The stranger; the homeless man; the immigrant; the non-believer; even those who would allow Satan to work through them. They, too are our brothers and sisters and while we are still breathing, we have an obligation to show them love, compassion and kindness, for one never knows when they might be entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2).

“What are you looking for?” If we do not see the answer to this question staring us in the face when Jesus asks it of us, we need to reassess our priorities and further contemplate the purpose for our existence.