Radio Browser: Family
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Uri: So, Lindelani, there's this idea out there of nuclear family, people living together with just their parents and siblings, being quite a new thing — what's your experience of that been?
Lindelani: My exposure to nuclear families is something very new. I grew up in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and every family that I knew had at least, I don't know, seven people living under one roof. In my own family where I grew up, with my grandfather and grandmother, there were about 18 of us living under one roof, and three generations. So that was my idea of a family for the longest time. And then when I moved out of KZN to study in a different city, I was then exposed to this idea of a nuclear family and... I don't know, it was new but I think it was more functional in my mind than what I was used to. It seemed like people were closer, and it seemed like people had more freedom and privacy in their homes, which was something that I did not enjoy as a child. So I look at it from that lens: I've always yearned to be part of a nuclear family, because I thought it was a better thing than what I grew up in.
Uri: Oh, interesting. So you said freedom and you said privacy, I want to talk about both those things.
Lindelani: So, I'm going to speak from my experiences, and some of the experiences of the people that were around me. I don't remember a time, when I was younger, like in the first 15 years of my life, where I did not have to share a bed with someone. It was always the case that I had to share a bed with at least 2 other people, and as a person who just valued my own space, I just found that to be slightly annoying. It was the only thing that I knew, but at the back of my mind I did have an idea that this can't be the only way to have this arrangement. And as I grew older and discovered nuclear families, that appealed to me in a very big way. So... people in the space almost all the time every day, and the only time you would find peace was when you were in the loo or something like that, and that's no exaggeration. Your choices were very limited: simple things like what to watch on the television, that was something that had to be negotiated beforehand, and once the family is set on something it was virtually impossible to watch anything else at a given time. So it felt like you did not have control over your own life.
Mystery Guest: [unintelligble]
Uri: Hey, really sorry man, give me one minute. [To Mystery Guest]: Hey! How's it going?
Uri: You're good! Did you want something?
MG: I already ate!
Uri: That's very good.
MG: Already eat-ed.
Uri: Very good. Um, I'm on the phone right now, can I come in a little bit? I'll come hang out with you and play?
Uri: Byyye! [To Lindelani]: Um, that is a very appropriate interruption. [laughs]. Ok, so, where were we?
Lindelani: We were talking about privacy and freedom, and I was just explaining how the only time you were free was when you were in the loo. During the other time you were at least two other people and you had to share a bed, so it seemed like you just did not have control over your own space and life. I found it to be very disempowering, and I think that's why now I value freedom and control.
Uri: So, I guess, how much is that about an extended family versus just that many people in that small a place. If you'd lived with your extended family but you'd had a mansion or, you know, four different houses on the same street or whatever, do you think your experience of extended family would have been different?
Lindelani: So... you're right it's also about the limited space that we had than the extended family, but I don't think that's the complete picture, I also think the nature of the relationships just allowed certain boundaries to blur. Privacy was not something that was valued when I was growing up, it was pretty much that the family needs to understand what's going on in your life all the time, and that you can't isolate yourself. Later on in life when I was a teenager, I think it was my mid teens, I went to live with my dad, and we had a bit more space there. But you were kinda not allowed to just go and sit in your bedroom all day, everyone would just come to your room and question what you're doing there all on your own, so you had to be with the family in the shared spaces. So again, that felt to be disempowering to me, I just didn't understand why I had to live life that way. I don't know, I didn't understand why they felt like we just had to be together all the time doing things together all the time. Because most of the time whatever that was being done was not my cup of tea, so... [laughter]. So I was trying to get away a bit. Like, it was good, but it would have been nicer if I had my own time and space.
Uri: Yeah, that's super interesting. I've always felt like I really really want privacy and autonomy, those are kind of two of my really key values, and I had a friend who always insisted that that was just, like, a learned thing, and she was always like "oh, historically people didn't have any privacy at all and it was fine, we just invented this idea of privacy and now we feel like we need it because we invented it," but I don't know, it's always felt quite deep to me, this desire to spend some of my time on my own, not-talking to anyone and doing the things I want to do instead of the things other people want to do.
Lindelani: So, how does it feel now? So you did not choose a family and you were just growing up in the environment with a bunch of people that you did not choose, and they were whatever they were, and then as you grew older now you have more power to select who you want to allow into your space, do you find that you are more willing to invite people into your space now than when you were younger?
Uri: Yeah, it's a good question. I think the current system works really well for me personally, but this is something that the David Brooks article that kind of inspired this conversation talked about, that a system might be better for adults or some percentage of adults but worse for children. I feel like I can choose who I spend my time with, I really like the people I choose to spend my time with, I get to spend some time on my own, I'm pretty happy with the way things are now. And yeah I'm definitely more willing to invite people in more given that I get to choose who those people are.
Lindelani: I am in familial relationships that if I had a choice I would not be in. There are people that I interact with regularly that if I had a choice, if I could choose them to be in my life like I do friends, they would just not be in my life. But I don't know why I continue to preserve that relationship -- is it the expectations that society has? Because I think objectively my life would be better if those people were not in my life, objectively I would be happier as a person, but it's just something that when it comes down to it I just can't do.
Uri: Ok, so, firstly, I've seen a lot of people who I think their relationship with their parents, the parents are basically abusive. I always say this but if I came to you and said "oh, I've got this girlfriend, she says I need to change my job and nothing I do is ever good enough for her, etc etc etc", most people -- I think including you -- would say, "Dude, just break up with her, what are you doing?, this person is toxic, she shouldn't be in your life
Lindelani: Yes, agreed
Uri: But if I tell you the exact same story but it's about parents, most people I know would say "oh, but, you know, it's your parents" -- so many people I know are in a job they hate, or in a city they hate, or whatever it might be, and, ultimately, when you get down to why they haven't left it and haven't done another thing, it's because their parents, right? And that just seems really mad to me, it seems like one of those things where the fact that we accept that as a society is really bizarre, and to me it's one of those things where if some alien came down and saw our world they would be like "what is this thing about, this doesn't make any sense," but we just accept it because we accept it.
Lindelani: Ok, do you think there's an evolutionary argument, or maybe at least interpretation, for it?
Uri: Oh yeah yeah yeah, 100%
Lindelani: Because rationally it makes no sense whatsoever, so it has to be just our biological drives that our just forcing us to stay.
Uri: I mean, yeah, evolutionary psychology I think is often over-stretched, but if there's something that it clearly would apply to it's the relationships between children and parents.
Lindelani: Yeah, so, I think I will leave it there with my family relationships, it's just biological drives that are beyond me. And we don't have free will, so [laughter] in that interpretation of things my actions make sense and they're completely justified. And how that relates to my personal relationships outside family, is, I have met friends who I think are more family to me than the people that I was born with and happen to share DNA with, and I value the bonds with people that I think are decent and people that I think contribute positively to my life. I think there's an accompanying guilt, though, there is a thing that is not talked about, with regards to forging your own path, and trying to live your life in a way that makes sense to you. The programming that you grew up with is still embedded in your brain -- you try to re-write it, and you try to programme it, but when you are doing something like that, you are just choosing your own family and you are choosing how close and what people are going to mean to you depending on your definitions, you're still going to feel that guilt because it is expected that you need to take care of your family, that you need to love and be loyal to them, regardless of who or what they are. So you still have this feelings that you need to just deal with. You understand why what you are doing and why you are doing it, but there's also this programming that is just deeply embedded in you that you have to fight every day, and it just brings these unpleasant feelings. Has that been your experience?
Uri: Yeaaah, fiilal piety is quite a thing. But, there's this crazy selection bias going on, like, most of the time the people who don't fit into those family structures well are probably less likely to have kids, and the people who do really enjoy the family structure or think about it more highly are maybe more likely to have kids -- I realise there's obviously a lot of people who don't fall quite into this, but.
Lindelani: But I just want to understand how you reconcile the choices that you make for your own life, and the things that are expected of you, the obligations that society thinks you have, to your family. How do you reconcile those things? Because for me those two things have not been compatible, like, how I define my own life and relationships is not the traditional way, but all the traditional conditioning that came before I started making my own mind about what things are going to be is still there, and these things are conflicting. And I feel the guilt, like there's a responsibility I'm abandoning, that I'm not taking on. So there's that thing that I just can't reconcile, it's very uncomfortable.
Uri: Yeah, so -- philosophically, I genuinely believe that we didn't ask to be born, and that as a matter of principle if someone chooses to have children, that's their choice, but the child didn't ask to be brought into existence, and therefore you can't impose an obligation on someone by doing something for them that they didn't ask to do. I kind of feel this about, like, the American healthcare system let's say, it's really unfair to take someone to a hospital and then slap them with a massive bill they can't pay, but they didn't even ask to do this thing. [laughter]. And yeah, obviously it's easier to say that to say that than to believe it, to feel it.
Lindelani: Yes, because that's exactly my dilemma. Rationally the argument makes sense, it makes sense to me that I have no obligation to my family, and that I should live my life in a way that makes sense to me, but it doesn't feel that way. When someone is reaching out to you and they're asking for something, and you just don't think of them in high regard, but you can really see that they're in need, you see that sense of obligation coming back for you. Like if it were any other person on the street you would not feel any obligation, but because this person shares a history with you you just feel that responsibility coming back. And it's even worse in my case, because I have a lot of family members that have not, in my opinion, made the right decisions, to make the best lives for themselves. So now they're stuck in life and they constantly need help from those family members that made the right choices, you know, acted responsibly. And you can see that they're suffering, and some of the products of those poor decisions is that they have children, and their children are innocent in whatever choices their parents chose to make. And that's where the sense of responsibility comes back heavy, because there is this child now, I can see that their lives could be better if I tried to help out, but rationally it's not really my responsibility, but they're in my face when I go back home, so it's just really a hard thing to have to deal with and think about.
Uri: When people are asking for your support, do they justify by extended family ties, or do they feel like they don't even need to justify it, or...?
Lindelani: They don't need to justify it, we are family and then you should help me -- not should, because there isn't that sense of entitlement, but there is an expectation that if you can help out then you should help out.
Uri: And this is how extended extended family, is it that the more resources you have the more extended the family network that will call on you, is that the concept?
Lindelani: Generally no, unless you get very wealthy by winning the lottery or something, but generally it's people that you would expect to ask for that help. But my grandparents had eleven children, and those children had children, so it's a pretty big family. [laughter]. And that's just on my mother's side, not counting the family on my father's side.
Uri: Yeah. Yeah I don't know, I mean, this gets even more philosophical, but, we lucked out in some ways into being born who we were versus being born as someone else, right?, and I'm very questionable on the concept of free will, so I can see someone else doing something that I'm like "ahhh, that's a mistake, that's not going to go well," [laughter], but on the other hand did they have a choice not to do it?, and is it churlish of me, if I was in their shoes would I want the person who's in my shoes to behave differently, maybe to support them more, but... I don't know, if you really take seriously the idea that free will is an illusion then none of this conversation even really matters, we're just doing whatever we were going to do anyway.
Lindelani: Agreed. And I think we are completely aligned on the question of free will, it's doubtful to me that it's a thing that exists. I think if I were given the conditions that they had, or that they had to exist in, I don't know that I would have made different choices. I don't think that we've earned what we have, in any meaningful way, it's just a combination of our environment and genes, and that is not something that we choose ourselves. So, yeah, I have compassion for that. And then, take all the things that we've been talking about together, and just try to think through them and what they mean for your family relationships and your relationships in general, it ends up being a very murky thing that you just aren't sure how to manage, and that's where I am.
Uri: Ehm, cool. Well, since free will is an illusion, you the listener can't help whether you enjoy this podcast or not, but we very much hope [laughter] initial conditions of the universe aligned correctly such that you had no choice but to enjoy this conversation.
Lindelani: [laughter] And not only that, but that you will fall completely in love with our ideas, and the things that we talk about, that in the future you will just have no choice but to listen to more of the stuff that we put out there.