“No man is an island.” John Donne
We humans are social creatures who crave community, a place to hold us as we navigate through life - not necessarily because we enjoy the drama and the politics that can come with it, but because we need each other. We have a primal need to connect. People who have gone through what we have gone through are a source of both strength and comfort to us. We need to be witnessed and told that we are worthy. We need others to praise us when we are doing well and sympathize or empathize with us during challenging times to validate our struggles and pain.
Community can be defined any number of ways. Under normal circumstances, our very first “community” is our nuclear family. We, even a first child, belong to our parents and create a family by biological virtue of just having been born. Sometimes, our community is comprised of different nuclear families living in close quarters, intertwining our lives in an effort to provide sustenance and services for ourselves, and each other. Our community may consist of people who believe as we do and come together either regularly or sporadically to express those beliefs in communal prayers, rituals and deeds. Or it may come from an organization or activity club where we meet people who all enjoy the same things.
In our culture, for many generations, it was the biological family that created the closest community. If at all humanly possible, family came from near and far to celebrate milestones. “It’s my sister’s daughter! How could I not be at her wedding?” “It’s my brother’s son being called to the Torah for the first time for his Bar Mitzvah. It’s unthinkable that I shouldn’t be there!” “My mother is turning 80 and we will all be there to celebrate.” If a member of a family fell ill, everyone rallied around to take care of the sick one, making sure that things were as normal as possible for them. During times of mourning, who ever heard of a family not sitting shiva together? And to whom did anyone turn when the pressures of their lives needed some relief?
But there are those of us for whom this supportive biological family unit is not a reality. We have lost our families, either because they have actually died, or because, in order to live in our truth, sharing our lives with them is no longer possible. For us, there is a special prize, something that, in my life, has proven to be one of life’s biggest gifts – a chosen family.
Our chosen family can come from almost anywhere. It is a collection of incredible people who have filled the vacant spaces and have become our sisters, brothers, parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins. They are people we have picked up along the way. They may live next door and have opened their hearts to allow us a place inside. They may be someone we met at a retreat or some other course of study where we really connected and felt as if “we never didn’t know each other.” Perhaps it was the older couple who had more love to give and became “grandparents” to my children, or the young girl who showed up every week to visit the elderly lady.
My daughter Esther will be graduating from 8th grade this month. She has a huge biological family, but only one person from this very large group will be there when she accepts her diploma. Still, she is as happy and excited as she should be. There will be a crowd of people from her chosen family to celebrate with her. Among them will be her “grandparents,” a wonderful couple we met 11 years ago in synagogue, her “aunt”, the woman at whose beach house we vacation for a week every summer, her “cousins, ”who sleep over all the time, and a bunch of others who will make this a milestone to remember.
Our chosen family can be as large as we want it to be. It can be from anywhere and it can fill whatever voids we have. I am so grateful for mine. When you have a moment, will you join me in giving thanks for your chosen family?