10 March 2023

Where is our numerous, often rambunctious, sometimes dysfunctional family during the most important transitions of our lives—birth, marriage, death?


As a student of culture, I have often heard—and agreed—that our family ties are too much of a good thing. Like milk and honey, family is supposed to be good for us. Our ties protect us from the loneliness and mental illnesses that now engulf the more individualistic West. They help relieve us from material wants that cannot be satisfied by our government’s services. They comfort us in our moments of grief, and share with us our moments of joy!


BUT, our family loyalty also mandates that right or wrong, we side with family—that makes for poor social justice, a lynchpin in any functioning nation. Weak or strong, we have the duty to be supportive of every member—financial provision to the more needy and added respect to the more prominent—thus, discouraging autonomy and self-reliance. Protective of ourselves from the encroachment of outsiders, we are more in-ward looking and less open to the outlooks of others. As a unit, therefore, we are often only as good as our weakest members. “Observe the crabs,” says a friend, “As soon as one tries to get out of the basket, the rest pulls it back”.


A seemingly key principle in life is that too much of anything, no matter how beneficial, is no good. I once read that an athlete died from drinking too much water during a marathon. So, is it true? Is this the reason we, an affiliation-orientated culture with our collectivistic mindset too centered on family, can never measure our accomplishments along those of our more individualistic, achievement-orientated foreign cousins? If this is true, is it worth the trade-off? I have lived in both worlds. And I honestly think we are happier than our more materially affluent but lonely cousins.


As if to match my observations with events, I have witnessed two recent important life transitions—the wedding of my son Paul. The first wedding was held in Sofia, Bulgaria--he has a Bulgarian bride--on 24 September 2022. The renewal of vows was held in Boracay, Philippines on 05 March 2023. There are three generations in my extended family.  From us six siblings, we are now slightly over 40, including spouses. Thirteen trooped to Sofia from Manila, London, and New York. Those who couldn’t go to Sofia attended the celebration in Boracay. Some participated in both occasions—COVID quarantines in foreign hotels notwithstanding. Altogether, we were 100% present less two.  The younger ones missed classes, and the older ones missed work. A brother-in-law suffered a bout of gout and could hardly walk. He was there too!

Needless to say, I was touched. As a widow with an only child, I have lived most of my life alone, and yes, sometimes it can be lonely. But I am lucky.  I am financially independent, with enjoyable hobbies and self-fulfilling occupations, a sense of social purpose, and a supportive family. Many do not have these opportunities.


Until quite recently, I lived in the UK where there is a Ministry of Loneliness—“lonely” is defined as feeling socially isolated and unwanted.  It is estimated that up to 45% of adults in the UK have felt or are feeling lonely. With a budget of millions of pound sterling, the Ministry organises support groups using its extensive Tackling Loneliness Network.  It sponsors activities for people at risk, provides a 24/7 telephone helpline called the Samaritans, encourages the lonely to adopt pets, etc.  Recently, it sponsored a Loneliness Awareness Week. Despite these interventions, however, there are still significantly more recorded suicides in the UK than in the more impoverished Philippines.


Yet, many of us continue to gripe about our country. Granted that there are a number of seemingly intractable problems, such as a misguided and very poorly run educational system, and a highly skewed income distribution. But we should bear in mind that other nations have their own intractable problems as well, among them is the disintegration of family life.


The following is a toast given by my nephew Kiko Benitez to the newlyweds, emphasising the value of family support. He should use some of these words of wisdom to lend a bit of reason to our short-sighted legislative government arm where he works as Congressman of the Third District of Negros Occidental:

To begin, I would like to say to Sania welcome to the loud, occasionally obnoxious, but always supportive family. 


Paul, hold Sania’s hands.  Remember these hands. These are the hands of your partner, young and strong and full of love, holding your hands as you promise to love each other today, tomorrow, and forever. These are the hands that will work alongside yours as together you build your future.  These are the hands that will hold you and comfort you in grief and in uncertainty.  These are the hands that will clap and celebrate your triumphs. These are the hands that will countless times wipe the tears from your eyes, tears of sorrow and tears of joy. These are the hands that will give you strength.


These are the hands that will hold your family as one. These are the hands that will comfort your children in times of distress, that will help you raise them and celebrate their successes. And these are the hands that even when wrinkled and aged, will still be reaching for yours, still giving you the same unspoken tenderness with just a touch.


Paul and Sania, remember these hands, these hands join together as the hands of the new family you are starting, and as you do, remember these hands and see behind them all of ours!  Remember that no matter how far or distant we may all seem to be, everyone here is with you in this endeavour. We are all invested in your happiness and your success. 


May I request everyone to please raise their glasses again and toast the happy couple?  Paul and Sania, congratulations, and cheers!

These good wishes should be a reminder to us that we are indeed rich whereas some other countries are poor. Our family values are like gems, rough-hewn and unpolished though they may be. We should work towards chipping off the excesses that make for a lot of imperfections.  On the other hand, perfection is boring, because where else will we go after then? We are right now ideally situated—in the process. There are still many challenges ahead, but we are halfway there!