My family’s most precious Thanksgiving tradition was not the meal on the third Thursday of November.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, when we invited our friends over, cooked a big turkey and everyone brought left overs - and stories of their families. These days we would call it a "friendsgiving". Sometimes it was just two people, sometimes 40, friends bringing friends, foreign exchange students.... people would spill out into multiple rooms, everyone laughing and getting to know each other. My family has been hosting “Friendsgivings” for nearly 50 years. As I began my own process of decolonization, the stories I tell about Thanksgiving. But I the emphasis on building bridges between differences and finding ways to support each other in one of the places that is often quite challenging: our own families stays the same.
Here’s a touch of irony: while my own family taught me the value of friendships, today, as an adult, I spend a lot of time working with families. I speak, write, teach, and advise around issues of inheritance, ancestry, and navigating a climate changed world from the perspective of a family units that can create better futures through telling different and (hopefully) more accurate and more compassionate stories about the past. I think about ancestral and family legacies - and creating better legacies for future generations - pretty much every day.
Families are tough. Crazy. Honestly, there are times I wonder why I keep focusing on families. Changing corporate structures and massive economic systems sometimes seems like a far easier task than trying to change a family. Childhood traumas abound. Intergenerational traumas are right there, easy to spot, but seemingly impossible to change, at the dinner table. Bad habits that have become diseases (in my family it is overeating and diabetes; in other families its alcoholism) frequently perpetuate themselves at family gatherings. Many, many topics are avoided. Intergenerational communication issues are rampant - some of which are eons of years old and some relatively unique to our times. Disagreements over politics is often only the tip of the iceberg of deeper divisions and inabilities to talk about those divisions.
And it’s not as if my family is “all figured out”. Not at all. I have one cousin who won’t talk to me and another to whom I can’t figure out what to say. I never pretend otherwise. I have a lot to offer, but not from a place of self-perfection.
Infuriations and even uncertainties aside, I work with families because Families matter. Families are amongst the oldest and most important units of society - making them critical for the kinds of conscious societies our planet is inviting right now. They are places where we see some of the greatest disagreements and divisions - and still some ‘semblance of relationships. And more than that - I have experienced intense healing in the work that I call “ReMembering” both for myself and others engaged in ancestral healing work. I have witnessed the power of my students and clients in shifting family narratives. I know that the work of working within families can transform past, present and future generations - because I’ve seen it.
Yet as I prepare the house for our friends, I wonder, what are the boundaries of the family, and when are those boundaries helpful for personal or societal well-being? It’s a huge question, the answers to which define, amongst other things, patterns of love, sex, and wealth transfer (including knowledge transfer as well as property, money, animals, linens, carpets, stories, seeds and songs).
In my own family, some of our "friends" are so close to my parents that they became very much like Aunts or Uncles for me. They played a key role in raising me. In my family, a degree of flexible boundaries was super helpful. I see similar trends in other families that I’ve known and worked with. And for many "next Gen" millenials and Gen Xers, the friendsamilies might seem to matter more than the ones before them.
It is not hard to say that "friendsamily" matter. And they matter not only because we all need good friends. They also matter - and might be absolutely critical - because of the context of our times.
The question before us today is not only, “how can families stay together, learn from internal differences, and create a supportive, loving environment for all ages to mature with grace and dignity.”
Or rather, that question has a very particular context: the context of a changing climate, massive global inequalities and other ramifications of colonization and related forms of extraction. It is in this ecological, economic, and social context that all families and friendship networks currently exist.
And in this context, the answer to, “how can we support one another” (and its many variations) is deeply interwoven with “how do we live in this changing climate, including how can we better engage with the rising economies and social formations that support human-earth harmony.”
This holiday season, everything from the food you eat to the conversations at the dinner table to the gifts you offer loved ones impact not just how others see you but our collective future far beyond the 2019 holiday season.
To navigate this turmoil, social networks outside of the family but also supportive of the family are absolutely critical. Where might we find these?
Historically, supporting shifts at the level of family is one of the key roles of spiritual communities. Let us take Christianity as one example amongst many. Early Christian communities were often small, relatively tight bonds of multiple families who came together to share stories and support one another - in practicing a way of life that was distinct from the dominant culture around them. Different food, different habits of eating together, different embodied practices including patterns of consumption, production and worship. It is one of the reasons spiritual communities can be so threatening: they *can* support people and their families - variations of religious education is always one of the first and important questions for almost any spiritual community - in living a genuine life. Such support strengthens individuals and their families against the huge work that withdrawing from certain societal habits and creating new ones. Over centuries, they accumulate critical knowledge that families need, including knowledge of migration, music, discernment and life long learning. For many, spiritual communities form a kind of extended family system.
Key to this extended family system is a sense of collective orientation. People may have different ancestors, but when gathered, their ground of being and the way in which they orient the purpose of their lives has a certain commonality. Often, there are rituals, practices, and a common language through which this shared orientation (similar but distinct from shared values) operates.
“Can” does not mean “does”: it is well known that religious and spiritual communities are quite superb at perpetuating larger social trends. The "Prosperity Gospel" is a case in point; so are the many variations of patriarchy embedded in many faith traditions. And to a certain extent because of this, the religious communities and spiritual communities are just as much in need of the changes as any other sector of society. So what can work to enable the new social structures to emerge - what will larger systems (not just individual advisors) can help families?
One of the most successful dynamics of the work I've been growing has been creating communities-that-are akin to family. The small groups that work with me, some of which self-define as anticipatory communities, support one another as they work to shift their own families (and, for some of them, their own religious communities). Small groups, which can align together and support one another in collective discernment, is incredibly powerful. That's a human truth: I'm just using what some might refer to as an ancient "social technology".
It is precisely because there are such differences across politics and analysis and assumptions about what makes the “good life” that families have so much potential. Yet it is these very differences which means that those people who are aiming to support their own families in making these shifts need a fair amount of support. That support needs to not only come from one or a few trusted advisors; it is far better for it to come from an alignment circle or a discernment circle that shares a similar anticipatory awareness of our ancestors, our present context and our future possible movements. The communities I’m cultivating right now share some similar senses of purpose, or alignment. And that sense of collective alignment enables them to powerfully support one another, including in their work with their own Families.
It's been good for me to see more people creating "friendsgivings." Even as I write this, I'm not sure when it is appropriate to ask friends to form the level of structured support that I know is necessary for the shifts that are needed. People need to want to participate in such groups. And in life (and especially in disasters), all forms of support, be they friends, family, and various forms of purpose-aligned communities, are valuable and not to be taken for granted.
Yet in this time when our world is physically changing so fast, what would it be like if more friend-networks, as well as more families, talked about how to support one another in times of emergencies and be engaged in the big work of developing resilience and adapting to climate change.
Certainly right now, our Mother Earth would benefit from her children talking together a bit more, and being a bit more vulnerable, and engaging in more openings.