The other week I saw The Darjeeling Limited, a new Wes Anderson movie about three American brothers who go to India for a spiritual experience and bonding. It was good: funny, quirky, interesting cinematography. Seeing the three brothers try to re-establish both their own brotherly bonds and their relationship with their mom (who had fled to India to become a spiritual healer of sorts) made me think of a point that’s been rattling around in my head about family.
For most of my single, 20 or 30-something friends (their siblings and parents are usually alive and they don’t have spousal families), there’s a pretty strong correlation between their overall happiness level and their family relations. People who have bad or non-existent family relations seem to lead a more up-and-down life, whereas those who still get along with their parents and siblings in adulthood are in a better, happier position.
The obvious observation is that when you’re young and dependent, family matters because they exert so much control on your life. If you want to be miserable, have miserable relationships with your parents and brothers and sisters. The less obvious observation (ok – maybe it’s still obvious) is that even when you’re not financially dependent, even when you’re out of the house and building your own life, family relations still seem to impact your happiness in ways many people underestimate.
I know, we hear it over and over: Family matters. But here’s the rub: when we talk about the importance of family, we often talk about it in mushy wushy terms — the kind of later-in-life, formative, intense family bonding experience that Po Bronson wonderfully describes. That’s a fine ideal. Yet all I’m talking about is simply getting along. Neutral. Not bad. The key is to not have actively negative feelings. The key is for everyone to tolerate each other at the Christmas get-together and for family stress not to consume undue psychic energy.
There are plenty of books for teens on how to deal with your family. There are plenty of books for the recently-married on how to start your own family. There seems to be a market for those in-between these two life stages on how to maintain what you’ve got.
On a related note, check out this touching reflection in the NYT “Lives” column from a guy who takes care of his father — and they, too, go to India, this time to trace the father’s roots together. Money graf:
We were both suffering from the need to say something in keeping with the scale of what we’d been through. Quite a problem, considering his default of emotional understatement and mine of lapsing into a crying jag at the first sign of human warmth. Standing there with his collar up and his left eye watering, he looked older than I’d ever seen him look. The bus arrived. We embraced, still reaching for something to say. In the end he just said, “Thanks for looking after me.”