Thursday, October 24, 2013

Family Season - Part I (will there be a part 2?...)

Winter is the season of Solitude - it’s too cold to leave the house much, and more than any other time of year, you spend more days entertaining yourself than any other. Spring is the season of Romance - everybody’s emerging from their houses and ready to meet new people and make new experiences. Summer is the season of Friendship - there’s vacation time and most people use it to spend quality time with friends whom they otherwise wouldn’t see much. But what is Fall the season of?

Family. Whatever your religion, there are more holidays and weddings in Fall than any other time of year - there's simply more time in the summer to plan for them. It is the season of institutions - school resumes and the workload gets heavier. It is a time of year when we all proclaim our allegiance to forces much greater than ourselves. But I wonder if there isn’t a more primeval reason as well.

The concept of the seasons being tied to history and literature goes back at least to Northup Frye and perhaps to even Spengler, though I can’t help thinking that they tapped into something far more ancient. Frye is particularly noted for his observation that each season has its own particular story. Spring is, of course, the season of romance - with its new beginnings and resumption of natural life. Summer is the season of comedy - when the world overheats and the natural world’s frustrations are grounded in the fact that there is too much vitality rather than too little. Fall is the season of tragedy - when we watch helplessly as everything that is vigorous begins to darken, wilt, and die. Winter is the season of irony - when the natural world is already covered in death, and the point of existence begins to seem less tragic than absurd.

The reasons that solitude, romance, and friendship, might be bonded to Winter, Spring, and Summer, seem rather obvious. But it’s probably a little harder to see why tragedy would necessarily be tied to family. But the answer to that question is probably the most necessary bond of them all. When the world around us is dying, family is the only bond solid enough to give us a fighting chance to get through life. The fall harvest comes in, and with the fall crop comes its harvest of human beings. As the body struggles to cope with the change in weather, contagious and congenital diseases become ever more prevalent as winter approaches. Wars inevitably intensify in the fall as every fighter presses for the greatest possible gains before roads freeze and mass transportation becomes virtually impossible. Both of the World Wars began in Autumn (WWI technically started in August, but the real fighting didn’t begin until September), so did Stalin’s Great Purge, the Battle of Stalingrad was fundamentally an autumn battle, as were Antietam and Somme. Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in late Autumn, so did Mao take over China. It was in fall that the Berlin Conference took place which ceded Congo to the control of Leopold II’s Belgium, and in fall that Auschwitz began to exterminate its prisoners.

There is something about Fall which seems intimately bound with dying - not with death, that remains winter’s prerogative. But in the face of imminent mortality, we need to believe with especial passion in a greater purpose to our suffering. Only institutions larger than us can provide us with the continuity we need to believe that we have greater a chance of survival, and if survival proves impossible, then of being remembered, and of finding meaning and strength through life’s difficulty. No man is an island, and were he so, how could he ever stand tall in the fall winds? Our impending deaths give us our reason for family, for God, for employment, for government, even for war.

And yet there’s a terrible irony which is perhaps the inevitable cause of fall’s solidarity to lead us into winter’s solitude. No man is an island, but every deceased man is. Not even family can protect us from death, and we all arrive to knock at our makers’ doorstep alone. When an honest man is dying, how can he not look back on his life and not think - what was it all for? When viewed from a distance, how much of life seems unnecessary? Trite? Overblown? How much needless frustration? How many absurd delusions? How many wasted years on matters he cared not at all? From fall’s familiar solidarity comes the realization after the harvest that we are surrounded by dying nature, waning sky, the gradual decay of middle age. The dying of fall is the decline in store for us all - for dusk, for the seasons, for animals, for people, for family bonds, for nations (and especially ours right now), for planets and solar systems and galaxies. It is the realization that you’ve lived more time that you’re going to live. It is the realization that the parameters of what your life will be have already been set, and even if better fortune soon comes your way, it is just a mere afterword to the struggle you underwent to acquire it.   

It’s all terribly bleak, yet also bleakly funny. All those things which seem significant when possibility was rife become incredibly stupid when life’s limitations encroach on us. All those burdens which seem so onerous in middle age become absurd in one’s dotage. When we enter the winter of our lives and are surrounded by so much which is already dead, what point is there in striving for more life when life as we always understood it no longer exists? All that remains is to accept that the end is coming, await it patiently, and content oneself with the pleasures a person can acquire in the time that is left. But for those of us lucky enough to see out another winter, it is that acceptance which leads us back to Spring’s renewal.

Family giveth, family taketh away. The solidarity of family is the force that births us, raises us, keeps us alive, and forms us into individuals capable of experiencing the springtime romance that permits us to start our own families. Only in a family, whether biological or surrogate, can we feel part of something greater than who we are. It is the ultimate institution of human endeavor, and therefore more prone to lethal error than any other. Like all worthy human striving, it is also a battlefield of staggering collateral damage - but because family is the most common of all human efforts, the collateral damage of family is larger than that provided by any other institution. All the family love in the world cannot save a family from its helplessness to heal the wounds which childhood, siblinghood, parenthood, and marriage inflict upon us, wounds which people who love each other inevitably cause - usually in the very name of love. Even in families where everyone loves each other and would do anything to help one another, the odds that family members will unwittingly influence one another into lethal activities which severely curtail one another’s quality of life - be they smoking, or alcohol, or dangerous driving, or debilitating mental illness, or obesity, or promiscuity, or drugs, or violence - are positively unavoidable. There is no such thing as a fully functional family.  If a family appears perfect, then either the parent or the child is a serial killer.

The reason for this should be pretty obvious. To draw from a realm which I bloviate about rather more often - Family is not a democracy; it is, in every sense, a dictatorship of the older against the younger. Sometimes, authoritarianism, or at least things which resemble it, is necessary, but just as there’s no such thing as an incorruptible dictator, there is not a single parent in the world who is will not at some moments exploit their privilege and authority against their subjects. There is no heavier burden in the world than to be solely responsible for the welfare of others, and such heavy responsibility will inevitably lead to parents shirking some part of their responsibility and feeling entitled to do so - perhaps occasionally they’re even right to feel entitled. Nevertheless, no matter how hard they try, there is not a single parent in the world who did not screw their children up royally - sometimes simply by how hard they tried to be good parents.

And like all dictatorships, the rulers ossify and grow out of touch with their subjects. The struggle for survival and dominance, the overthrowing of one generation by the next, is the basic shape of the life cycle. One generation commends its works to another and declares its mighty acts, only for the next generation not to give a fuck. The amnesia is what propels them to their own mighty acts, only to find themselves eventually becoming the tyrants they once swore they'd do better than.

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