Who are your family? If you think the answer’s obvious, you may groan at reports that Pete Docter, director of Up, dedicated his Oscar to ‘the Pixar family’ and his wife and kids. I groaned, then checked my fattest dictionary, and found this cheesy phrase couldn’t be more accurate. The word hails from Latin’s ‘familia’, meaning ‘household’ and all in it (‘famulus’ was a ‘servant’). Thus childless Samuel Pepys’s ‘family’ included his maids, but if his hands roamed as they dressed him, he was the right side of incest. Just.
The idea that family can be custom-fit from any old bits may not be modern, but has gained urgency with rising divorce, and animates Pixar’s greatest films, especially Up. This tale of a grouch restored to life by a boyscout, bird and dog salted my popcorn with tears because I’ve always believed that family bonds are inked in empathy first, blood second. Empathy led my parents to adopt a third daughter, and empathy held us fast when she unveiled the temper of a Tasmanian devil. Today this once-damaged tot is an adoring mother whose sons have undammed unsuspected reserves of love in us all.
To make a family, via chromosomes, adoption, or ready-made people in your world, is always creative. But how to tell who belongs? Those friends whom I rebuke, not cold-shoulder, when they offend me, I consider sisters. By contrast, my pal says he’d happily donate a kidney to a sister who didn’t invite him to her 30th birthday (in the next-door street) but he’d never ask her to dinner. Yet if my friend-sisters required a kidney, what would I say? What if my sisters need it?
One thing is clear: family is the forcing house of identity, and at Christmas, as they goad us into acting as we did in our teens, we remember why we left. Yet if the lessons that family teach about our character can be painful, they’re worth mastering and applying elsewhere, preferably with the empathy afforded to nearest and dearest. Intriguing research has found the happiest people don’t take home the principles they’ve learnt at work, but vice versa. Treating your baby as a project is a pattern for woe, whereas managing a boss as you do your tantrumella toddler/husband is highly effective. So whoever tends your hearth, root your heart at home and everything is easier.