Parents say a lot of things that result in children rolling their eyes, either blatantly or unseen. Are children truly supposed to believe that the sibling with whom they cannot bear to be in the same car is going to be their best friend someday? Will they ever actually thank their parents for not being allowed to go to the party that “everybody” is going to?
On that note, don’t most young people rank their BFFs, the close friends they absolutely love, above relatives? Does going to a family celebration truly top heading to the beach with your gang? Is blood really thicker than water?
Regarding how special family is, my own parents turned out to be correct. This past week, my Aunt Esther died concluding a long (more than a century) and well-lived life. After the funeral and interment, her children returned to her home to sit shiva* – the seven days of Jewish mourning. Before friends and neighbors arrived, it was just Aunt Esther’s children and their families, my cousin Mike (not his real name) and his wife, my youngest daughter, and me. Growing up, Mike was one of the big cousins while I was one of the little ones. I was fortunate to belong to a large family, so dividing into groups was natural. Never the twain shall meet. For example, at our grandparents’ 50th wedding celebration, the big cousins explored the cordoned-off and forbidden floor of the hotel we were at, while we ‘littles’ had nap or rest time.
The last time I saw Mike was at our grandfather’s funeral and shiva. I was in high school, and he was in college. As usual, we didn’t interact on that long-ago occasion. Since that time our lives have taken different paths. We lived in different states, diverged in the way we relate to faith and, my guess is, never voted for the same candidate in a national election. This week, none of that mattered. It seems the age gap between a seven-year-old and a fourteen-year-old isn’t as large a few decades later.
Why? Why was I excited to see him and why was he fascinated to find out about my life and family? Furthermore, when a more distant cousin with whom we share a common set of great-grandparents arrived, we were all tickled to meet her. What is it about blood that makes for this strange connection?
Just before these events, I listened to an interview with Peter Singer, a highly lauded professor of bioethics and moral philosopher. In one of Dr. Singer’s more famous challenges, he asks people what they would do if they were dressed in expensive clothing and passed a child drowning in a pond. Most people say that they would jump in and rescue the child. In that case, asks Dr. Singer, why does the fact that a child in India is drowning in poverty have less of an impact. Perhaps we should all have only one or two changes of clothing and give the money we save to help the unfortunate no matter where they live.
That argument has never held water for me. It is one of those ideas that sounds good to college students who have few possessions but are happy to give away the possessions of others. Furthermore, experience shows me that many (not all) of those who call for outpourings of charity, replace giving of their own money with activism to take money from their fellow citizens. I recall a presidential primary race where it turned out that two of the candidates, themselves wealthy, were speaking emphatically about needing to help the poor when a reporter discovered that they personally gave close to nothing to charity. In one case, the candidate’s main donation was having his used underwear picked up by a local non-profit.
Even if one’s heartstrings are tugged—as they should be—by sadness about the plight of others with whom we have little close connection, what we can do is limited. Ancient Jewish wisdom provides an order of charity, starting with those closest to us and moving outwards. It demands that we recognize that 10% of what we earn does not belong to us but must be given away thoughtfully. The recipients are to be, in order, close family, more distant family, members of one’s community, residents of one’s city, and so on. But for all that, there is a limit to what we are to give away. If people do not benefit from working for more money, they will choose not to work, leading to a poorer world for all. What I know of Peter Singer suggests to me that he is sincere and that he walks his own philosophy. Yet I think that were his prescriptions for ethics widely followed, the world would end up being a crueler and less ethical place.
Why did I drive several hours to go to my aunt’s funeral when I’m quite sure there were funerals happening in my neighborhood? Why did my cousin fly across the country to be at that funeral? Why was my reaction to meeting and catching up with cousins stronger than meeting others with whom I probably have more interests in common? We come into this world with a heritage. Those who share that background with us, though not chosen by us, have a claim on our hearts. One of the gifts we can give our children is a circle of relatives. During the Depression, when optimism for the future was difficult to see and money was incredibly tight, Mike and my shared grandparents brought five children into the world. Each of those married and had children of their own. In doing so, they produced individuals who are also part of a broader, connected group, with its compelling call to look beyond just ourselves or our narrow, nuclear families, and see that we are part of a larger, yet still small enough to embrace, picture.
*Read more about shiva HERE:
August 7, 2012 by Susan Lapin
BONUS BLOG: I invite you to read Rebecca (Lapin) Masinter’s column “Are You Mean Mommy or Despicable Daddy?”. Rebecca was a popular and frequent contributor to my now archived Practical Parenting column.
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