Family bond obsession works like racism

Family bond obsession a form of racismWhat did I most fear in becoming a father?

Well, you start out with a lot of suppressed fears, long before the prospect of imminent fatherhood arises. When single, its: 'Will anyone love me? Will anyone want to marry me?' And then, when you’ve found that someone and you’re planning the wedding, it’s: 'Will we even be able to have children?' This last one, especially, taunts as you get older and older and all the newspapers and scientific studies frown on your hopes.

All these things I feared, but then Tereza (pictured) came into my life, and life stopped being so panic-stricken and started feeling sensible again.

We had accepted that at our ages, forty-six and thirty-nine respectively, parenthood may be beyond our reach.

Then, one day, I came home and my wife broke the news to me, in September 2006, about nine months after we’d been married.

Such are the absurdities of life that, at the very moment she told me she was pregnant, the thing I most wanted to do was go to the bathroom — not out of any reaction to what she had said, but simply because I had just arrived from a long trip in the car and, well, nature called. Of course, one can’t be told by one’s wife that she is expecting a child, and instantly ask to be excused; I held on for a full twenty minutes, embracing her, while all the while thinking, 'When can I go?'

New fears emerged. Of course, the most common one is about money. Would we be able to support a child, on one salary? Tereza had come to Australia as an immigrant and was still to find a job, and let’s face it, who was going to employ a pregnant immigrant?



Family bond obsession a form of racismI was worried about the world, its politics, its wars and its environment, and what life might be like for the little one, forty, fifty, sixty years down the track. Every parent must have worried about the future since, well, time immemorial.

But, no, the principal worry for me, strange as it may seem, was not these things. It was this: 'would I become just another jealous parent, defending my family at the expense of the needs of others?'

Let me explain.

For some years I have believed that it is not primarily racism which is the cause of trouble between different nations, but a more fundamental force I called ‘genism’. I believed that family and tribal loyalties — genetic loyalties — are the major cause of tensions, fights and wars.

Genism: favouring your own child over everyone else.

What made me think this was seeing in-fighting over children between parents of students in a school I taught at in North Carolina. Even at the school’s beauty pageant — about which the students themselves had some sense of humour — several of the parents were adamant about the rules and conditions their children would be appearing under. ‘Fairness’ was the word used, but ‘advantage’ was the goal being pursued. You see it all the time on school football fields on a Saturday morning: the raw desire to stand out above everybody else. When babies are new-born, the number one concern is that he or she be ‘normal’; but later, parents want their kids to be seen to be ‘exceptional’.

In nature, it has been observed that a gorilla which leaves its original tribe and joins another is beaten even more savagely than enemies if it should foolishly return to the old tribe’s territory. It has committed the ultimate betrayal, that of turning against its family.

Similarly, political parties punish traitors even more than they lambaste their opposition, because political parties are networks of friends and supporters, people who will look after the shared interests of families of the same class or background, ‘Labour’, ‘Conservative’ and so on. A political traitor, like the mis-allied gorilla, has been a waste of precious time, nurture and resources. He has disadvantaged the family.

Family is the glue that binds society, and a love of parents for children is one of the great delights of the world. However, when resources grow scarce, that same bond can turn monstrous. On television, I’ve seen poor African neighbours fighting each other for food parcels hurled from the back of a truck — a deeply disturbing phenomenon, born of the desperate need to feed one’s own children.

The lines are always drawn first around one’s own family.

That is what I believed, and in part still do. And I believe racism is just a crude form of ‘genism’ — differences of racial features are just more obvious; a potential rival is more easily identified.

But in the first days after her birth, when I looked down at my little daughter, I was surprised.

I found myself, yes, wanting her to have every blessing and as little suffering in her life as possible (although we all know that it’s suffering which builds character, sad to say).

But I also found myself yearning for all children to have lots of blessings and little suffering. I found myself praying that all children be fed and sheltered, in peace, with a future to look forward to. When my daughter cried, I thought of every child who cries — the pain of the world — and prayed for them as much as for her.

It seems that a child brings into the world as much compassion as jealousy. We just have to keep reminding ourselves of those early feelings, and keep using the empathy we feel for our own to help us to understand the needs and feelings — and fears — of the other.

 

Recent articles by Peter Fleming.

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