Originally posted on 06-02-07:
I had a message from Cousin Morris last night, and we haven’t talked yet but it started me thinking about the events since the last time we talked, which was in Florida when my dad was sick, a couple of weeks before he died. I came back to California around the first of February, and Hatcher died on the 18th. I didn’t go back for the funeral. In Episode Twelve of Bare Brains I talked about all that, but of course I’ve had other thoughts since.
I talked to my mother, brother, and sister when I told them I wasn’t going to the funeral and I haven’t called them since. I wrote Mom a long letter in one last attempt to explain myself, and talked to her briefly when she called to tell me some news, but otherwise I’ve severed ties with everyone in Florida. Why?
The last two weeks I spent with my family convinced me that we had nothing in common but DNA and mutual attendance of many events, especially during my first 17 years.
If shared DNA were the basis of how we relate to people, then I would have a closer relationship with all the members of my family than I do with Eve, my wife, and everyone else’s relationships would be determined in the same way. I trust that your experience, like mine, is that DNA is not the determinant of how close your relationships are.
Shared physical space and the events encompassed thereby do not guarantee that everyone in that space will have the same experience—professional sporting events come to mind. So the fact that I grew up in the company of my family does not mean that we have the same associations with those times and events. The significance we attribute to them in the development of our lives is very different, particularly in our general interpretations of how people are shaped by experience.
The main differences between us arise from the fact that they have continued to live in the culture in which they grew up. My brother ventured forth in the US Air Force, returning afterwards, and cousin Morris has spent several years in other parts of the country, but he, too, went back to Florida, and has spent the bulk of his life there. My sister has never left, and although my mother spent several months in San Francisco while my brother, Mark, was dying of Aids—and was significantly altered by that—she is still overwhelmingly of that culture.
My de-culturization began when I read Philip Wylie‘s book, An essay on Morals. Then I got a degree in Sociology with a minor in Anthropology, which further tuned me in to the role of culture in determining behavior. Then I lived in Great Falls, Montana for four years in the US Air Force; five years in Eugene, Oregon; eight years in San Francisco, five years in Tucson, Arizona, and in Oakland, California since 1989. You might guess that I prefer the Bay Area, and cultural diversity is not the least attraction.
One result of the life I’ve lived and education I’ve had is that I don’t identify with any one culture. There are some values that I adhere to because they are comfortable for me, and they help to keep my life uncomplicated: I try to be honest without brutality because it saves me the trouble of remembering my lies. I try to avoid intrusion into other people’s physical and value spaces because it saves the energy of dealing with hostility. I take responsibility for any damage I might do because it smoothes the operation of society and my participation in it, and given the values I’ve internalized, it saves me the trouble of justifying not taking responsibility.
Somehow I’ve acquired an enjoyment of being helpful, loving, thoughtful, and considerate. I can think of a number of influences to which I can attribute the acquisition of this enjoyment, but they are quite numerous, and trying to ascribe a value to each one would be tedious and not very useful. Nonetheless I have it, and it has caused relationship problems with Eve, my family, and others.
The problem is this: my enjoyment of being helpful, loving, and thoughtful leads people to have expectations about how I will continue to behave that are not true. Women tend to think that I am in love with them, and that a life of cohabitation, companionship, and shared bliss stretch out before us to life’s end. My family tends to think that my behavior toward them means that I share their cultural values, and that I will comply with all those values, world without end, amen.
As a result of this problem, and the values I’ve internalized—mentioned above—I have pretty much discontinued anything more than casual relationships with people. I have more involvement with Eve than anyone else, and thanks to our many conversations on this subject she has adjusted her expectations of me toward the current reality. We still drift into patterns of heightened expectations, but I try to correct them as soon as I become aware. She has asked me not to say that I love her, because it puts her through the bother of pruning away her conditioned responses to that word every time I say it.
With my family, I decided to eliminate their confusion and disappointment by discontinuing contact. If I am nice to them, it engenders a whole train of associations that are not valid, and my attempts at explaining myself just generate more anguish and confusion. To them I have become, “that incomprehensibly ungrateful son and brother,” because that is the only explanation that fits their understanding. I would rather deal with that than with the continual arousal and disappointment of their expectations involved in trying to maintain a relationship.
Do you know where your values come from?