Years ago, relatives of mine, upon learning that I was moving to their neck of the woods, made the offer: “If you ever need anything at all, don’t hesitate to call us.” As it turned out, I ran into some trouble during the move. Not only did my tire need to be replaced after hitting something in the road, but my new apartment was not habitable on arrival. With all my belongings in two cars, one of which was in the garage getting fixed, I and the two friends who had generously helped me with the move found ourselves desperate for a place to stay overnight.
So I took up these relatives on their offer. It quickly became clear that they either hadn’t really meant it, or a phone call was the extent of the offer. The house wasn’t “in shape to have guests,” they said. I offered that we would be happy to sleep on the floor. They were emphatic that guests were not an option for them—even a guest in desperate need of a place to stay. Even family. That experience more than a decade ago is one of many I have reexamined countless times. The implications of that story on the significance of words, the meaning of care, and the definition of family continue to be relevant to my life more than a decade later.
Words matter. This is a cliché that gets repeated often, and from the standpoint of relative reality, it may or may not be true. While we learn that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” the significance of words evolves as we develop the wherewithal to both perceive and control the motivation beneath them. I will never forget realizing as a young boy that the actual words—the combination of letters—only comprised half the meaning of any sentence. My paternal grandmother used to say “How are you?” with such a sinister, inquisitorial and derogatory tone that the respondent often became enraged or defensive when answering. She would follow such responses with condemnation in the form of: “Well, I just asked how you were.” On the surface, the words were fine. But in the space between the letters, one could not miss the cruelty and hate from which those words were constructed.
In studying linguistics, I began to understand this power of words, and that led me to work with my mother on understanding the Matrika Shakti. In December 2000, I wrote the following for a linguistics class I was taking at the time: “Matrika, which in Sanskrit literally means ‘unknown or un-understood Mother,’ is the power inherent in the letters. The job of the mother is creation, and the letters create the universe by differentiating. As soon as something is named, it has been limited. In this way, apples are not confused with monkeys, or even with pears, for that matter.” This articulation, simple as it is, still holds true. But my understanding of how that process of creation occurs has evolved considerably.
When I was an undergrad, the president of my university used to quote the unattributed maxim: “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.” But that maxim starts too late in the process. It should start “Watch your heart. Everything comes from the heart.” As I continue to learn personally, professionally and spiritually, the motivation beneath words matters more than the words themselves.
So why did those relatives say “if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call”? Was it merely formulaic? Linguists have established that there is a huge body of ritualistic communication, and culturally derived notions of politeness which transcend honesty or sincerity. If I say “Hi, how are you?” the normal response is “Fine, thanks. You?” And even if neither of us is fine, we are still likely to engage in that ritual before showing that we are genuinely interested by asking a second time: “You doing okay?” And the response to that second question will indicate the willingness to discuss more honestly or not. But in the case of these relatives, I don’t think it was just a formula. It was providing them an opportunity to show how they care and welcome me into their family.
The notion of caring is by no means universal. Increasingly, I have experienced that, for many people, caring is something reserved for those who are unable to care for themselves. It is tied to pity, and woundedness. In a culture where it is becoming unusual not to be on medication for some psychological reason or another, we have come to celebrate wounds and victimhood. We care for the wounded, so in pursuit of care, many people look for ways to declare their own woundedness. And those who are not wounded and unwilling to be victims, even when they are hurt or injured, are often ignored or even punished for that unwillingness.
My mother taught me that care is an expression of love. But it seems that these relatives who turned me away see care as separate from love; it is okay to love someone, but you can only care for them if they are wounded. While I was once heading towards embracing victimhood as my identity, my mother taught me to stand up and live my life. Most people who know me know that I can handle life’s challenges, whatever they are. But for some—these relatives included—that deserves a cold shoulder. I am not a victim, therefore, I do not deserve their care, even in challenging times. I often hear, “It will work out.” Few things enrage me more. No, “it” will not work out, I will sort things out. I have agency. But for these relatives and many others, if someone has agency they are undeserving of care. Which leads to the question: then what does it even mean to be family?
For me, the meaning of family is grounded in love; not some idea of love, but authentic, absolute love, demonstrated in a variety of ways, not least of all through care. I have quite a few blood relatives whom I do not consider family. Their lack of love, demonstrated consistently and convincingly over a long period, eroded any familiar bond which may have been established by the blood relation. On the other hand, some people to whom I have no genetic connection have become part of my family by virtue of the love (and thus care) they have offered over the years. The relatives who turned me away seem to have a different definition of family. For them, family may also mean love, but love means not caring. That offer of assistance afforded them the opportunity to welcome me into their family by showing their love by not caring. Twisted and irrational as that sounds, I am increasingly convinced that a lot of people operate that way.
It is almost laughable that these relatives had “no room at the inn” for weary travelers in need of a place to stay. All the more ironic given that one of them is actually an ordained minister. But if that was how they saw fit to welcome me into their family and show me their brand of love, I’m afraid I am compelled to reciprocate: there is no room in my life for them, and I don’t think I should waste my time showing them any degree of care. Life is too short to yield precious energy to people who are only committed to a caring-wounded dynamic.
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