Seasonal Transitions: Balancing Individualism with Family

This is a season of transitions.  As schools close for the summer, college students return home after exams, and families embark on summer vacations, there’s an inevitable adjustment – sometimes uncomfortable – as each family member is thrown from the school year routine of individual trajectories into a sudden sense of enforced togetherness.  This time can be particularly frustrating for the children in the family who’ve spent the year growing increasingly independent, but now feel they’re taking a step backward as they follow the dictates of the family unit.  It can be equally jarring to the parents who find themselves refereeing a sudden spike in sibling squabbles and feeling guilty because they miss the quiet time they enjoyed on school days.

Observing how other cultures, as well as previous generations, have dealt with this issue is instructive.  In my book Seeing More Colors:  A Guide to a Richer Life, I give the following example.  When my wife and I were in Bali, Indonesia, we had a guide who was a young father in his thirties.  He proudly stated that he had just returned from a one-month vacation with his family, spent doing what gave him more joy than anything else imaginable:  he constructed his father’s grave.  The family and community are paramount in Bali.  It is common to have several generations of a family living together in the same compound.  Families belong to both clans and cooperative groups of neighbors called banjars, who assist each other at festivals, family gatherings, and at times of crisis.  This model has worked for centuries.

It is easy to understand the advantages of seeking opportunities wherever one finds them, such as accepting a job far from family roots, but there is a high price to pay.  When my parents were growing up, there were always relatives living with them.  My parents both came from large families that emigrated to the United States from eastern Europe and settled in Houston, Texas.  There are countless family stories about  more settled members helping new arrivals to become more established.  The actions of the previous generations helped foster very close relationships in my generation.  To this day, I have cousins who are like brothers and sisters.

In contrast, a considerable part of the mythology of the United States is centered around the exploits of heroic individuals, from the entrepreneur who starts his own company to the lone cowboy who explores the open range.  A book that I have read many times through the years, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden emphasizes the importance of discovering things on your own.

Psychology professor David G. Myers writes in The Pursuit of Happiness, “We need to balance me-thinking with we-thinking.”  Self-actualized people—those role models studied by my psychology professor Abraham Maslow—as well as many members of my own family and friends, appear to have achieved this balance.  I admit it continues to be a struggle for me, but I find it helpful to remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy:  The only gift is a portion of thyself.

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