It’s eerie how often I’ve heard this lately. In fact, these exact words (rhetorical, I’m presuming) spilled from the mouth of a close friend after recounting a recent fallout with a sibling. “Family… why bother?” Having just returned from a trip to visit my folks in Tennessee (an 8–10 hour journey both ways with a 6-year old in tow), I’ll admit the question crossed my mind as I listened to a chatty Southwest seatmate regale me with stories of her recent cyst removal. In detail.
There was a time, oh, maybe a century ago when the answer would’ve come to us more easily — or, more accurately, the question never would’ve emerged at all. “Because we literally need each other; otherwise, our cornfields won’t produce.” You know, when life was a little more about basic survival and less about individual interest. Now? After physically raising us to a tipping point of independence, family ties become somewhat… optional. Even obsolete. When our needs shift from immediate physical requirements like a roof over our head and food in our bellies to emotional/moral support from a distance, what do we choose when that support doesn’t meet our expectations?
I’m in my mid-thirties. My partner and I pay our own bills. We’re raising our kids across the country from any close family. My parents are still working and mobile. We don’t truly need each other, in the sense that we depend on one another to survive. I don’t rely on them for childcare or require their help tilling my fields. Our interactions are reduced to a handful of monthly emails or phone calls. And if, like so many, we experienced further division on issues like vaccines, masks, or political agendas (in fact, we don’t agree on these things), ‘why bother?’ would seem a very reasonable sentiment.
It feels like more trouble than it’s worth.
What I’m getting out of it simply isn’t enough to compensate for the work I have to put into it.
Why am I the one consistently putting in more effort?
Why should I keep pursuing a difficult relationship when life is already hard enough and emotional energy reserves are tight?
These are crucial questions, and you could ask them about any relationship. A friendship. A marriage. A parent. A sibling. Why keep trying when it gets hard? It’s a tough one to convincingly answer. In a culture like ours that celebrates independence and personal comfort, cutting ties is drastically quicker and scary doable. You can conceivably avoid just about anybody. Block them on social media. Ignore their calls or texts. Stop inviting them to gatherings. There’s a reason “ghosting” is such a popular term…
Still, though it may feel better at the moment, there are things we lose in walking away. Building a strong relationship isn’t supposed to be easy, at least not all the time. This is exactly why they’re so rewarding — you have to earn them. “Iron sharpening iron” is how the Bible describes it. That doesn’t sound comfortable OR easy. Out of Jesus’ 12 closest buddies, one betrayed him (to death!) and another denied ever knowing him. These days, I’m tempted to cut someone off just for disagreeing with my music choices. Throw in decisions about whether to vax, not to vax, how and when to gather, or which candidates and policies to support…
Really, why bother?
- Historical wayfinding. Family gives us a sense of where we come from, including the bevy of shortcomings and generational habits we’re likely to face. When God promises to make you a “new creation,” I believe this is part of what He has in mind. Because you’re going to need help — and I mean larger-than-life, move-heaven-and-earth sort of help — if you hope to ever get past the wounds and failings passed down by your ancestors. The kind only the One who Created you can provide. And, as you slowly make progress over your “demons,” you give those around you (including your family) a beautiful gift: the hope that they, too, can overcome the odds. Speaking as a parent, I find it essential to know those who came before me, so I can better understand how to help shape and pray into the kind of generation I hope to leave behind.
- Breaking down the ego. Christians call this “dying to self.” All it really means is you’re denying yourself the comfort and ease of having everything the way you want it all the time. And it can be good for you. Sort of like eating vegetables or exercising, doing the hard things — like staying in communication with a family member who holds radically different ideas — is a challenge that can raise your relational endurance. Practically speaking, walking away from nearly every difficult relationship can quickly become a habit; where do you draw the line when it comes to staying or going? In the last year, my partner and I experienced stark disagreement with various family members over matters of health, politics, and religion. It’s tempting to throw in the towel and make them the Bad Guy. Instead, we tried something entirely new as a little experiment: we remained intentionally in touch. By keeping lines of communication open and asking honest questions, I’ve changed my own perspective on a few things as we’ve come closer to understanding one another.
- Learning the art of community. In the heat of a pandemic, more than 1,500 miles from any blood relatives with whom we might form a “socially isolated pod,” things got incredibly lonely — even in a household of four. Once a proud, card-holding member of the “I don’t need anyone” club, I realized the importance of social interaction to my mental wellbeing. To be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled about this inner epiphany; other people are hard. They say awkward things and hurt my feelings and encroach on my personal space. Maintaining relationships is difficult and uncomfortable work. It requires that I “overlook multiple offenses,” “turn the other cheek,” and believe the best about people when it’s far easier to assume the worst. It requires that other people do the same for me. Sometimes, they will let me down, offend me, or betray me — and I, them. This is the beauty and pain of community; of being brave enough to continue seeking to be known and understood — to know and understand — even when all you want to do is retreat to the safety of solitude. This is family. This is the Church. This is community, and whether I like it or not, God says I need it in order for Christ to be formed in me. (Bah humbug).
So, why do you “bother” with family (or choose not to)? Maybe a particular issue or misunderstanding is causing division. Whether it’s a church, workplace, or family community, I can help. Click here to learn how.
Please note: I am not advocating for maintaining close contact in cases of abuse.