Monday, December 14, 2009

On Support Systems

In "class, culture, and moving away from home," Hugo Schwyzer muses about what it means when people choose to live closer to home, or at home, while attending university, which he saw as rather limiting, because, he had been told, college was about "having new experiences, creating a new identity, developing one’s own emotional, spiritual, and intellectual autonomy without interference from one’s family of origin". He then meandered off into musings about this topic.

I understood his talk about individualism. I understood the desire to get away from restrictions of the family, the ideal of broadening one's horizons far away from family and family friends, to be forced to become independent (which I never mustered, being 25 and still without a career), to be thrown into a void where I would have to start ground up. I think I've done quite nicely. I have a support system of friends, I chose really well my educational institution which has made university a joy to go through, and I like to think I know Halifax pretty well already.

What I didn't understand was why he was so confounded, so baffled, by the choice not to leave. I have had my fair share of being annoyed at people who insist on going home every other weekend to be with families, missing out on important meetings for projects, whilst I must wait several months before I get to see my own kin again. When I go home, I find it increasingly harder to leave - partly because I have a bit of a white-knight complex and can't bear to see my family fall apart without me there.

Families are important. For the lucky ones, they are support systems, places to return to for comfort. Theoretically, family helps you out when you're in need. I say theoretically because my family has often never helped me in ways I needed help the most.

So some of us choose our families. I choose my friends carefully and love each of them with all the fierce one might see reserved for family members. I know if I'm down and out, and need a place to crash, someone will be there. Recently I had a friend stay at my place, sleeping on my couch, using my spare key. I offered him my roof, my food, my couch, my Internet connection (he brought his own router!), because that's just what I was taught to do for friends when they are down and out and in need of a place to stay.

When I chose Canada, and my university, I knew I was choosing a place to come to which was smack dab across the planet from my family. I made the decision to move and build a life away from family, in a place where I have none, because my experiences with family have been torturous - I was expected to be close to a family that had no way of knowing how to be close to me. It was a struggle, trying to be emotionally filial to a family that didn't know how to treat me. I purposefully chose a place where it would be difficult to visit me - in order to get here, they would have to fly several hours, on a long-haul flight that is never comfortable. (And this is true, because when my family came over for my graduation, the first thing my brother did was give me a dirty look and say in a grouchy, gnarly tone, "am never visiting you again!")

But not everyone makes the same decision. Not everyone had the hankering to go find myself the way my brother and I did. Not everyone is driven to leave for different experiences. Most of my peers that I know of just wanted a degree in a good university, then a good job. And that's fine too.

I envy people who have loving families nearby, who visit often, because I cannot visit my own family often. But I daresay it's offset by having loving friends, who, while I don't visit often, are usually there for me.

When one has no blood-relatives to rely on, one must rely on the ties of friendship. I would say my friends, although they may be different from me by virtue of class, race, gender or ability, are still great friends, closer to me than family.

My mother used to point out to me that the ties of friendship aren't as strong as the ties of family. That there are things no one outside the family could ever hope to understand, and that family ties place a greater obligation on kin to come to one's aid.

As I grow older, I see that this is practical advice. But I would like for ties to be more than that. If I'm in trouble, I don't want kin to help me out of obligation, just because they happen to share some genetics in common with me. I don't really care for the idea that I have to take on someone I don't particularly like, just because they're kin. To give that sort of care seems a bit empty to me. This isn't to say I wouldn't do it; of course I would, because I'm not that kind of churlish person.

Yet there is something to be said about a support system that's entrenched in true affection. About someone seeking you out because they really like you, and want you as company. About people who get together not out of familial obligation but because they take joy in being in each other's presence.

It's a more fragile support system, to be sure, but one I appreciate deeply. Even when far away from home, one still seeks people. But that's my decision, and some others prefer the solidity of actual family around. And that's awesome too. There's something about people you've grown up with who still help out, who aren't turned off by what they know of you, who look out for you.

 But the bottom line is, no matter who they are, we'd still need them. There's something lovely about knowing that.

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