In Praise of Chosen Family

Friday, December 26, 2014 - 7:38 am

In Praise of Chosen Family

Kate is one of the first friends that I feel like I actually chose. I’d see her walking around campus, her thick, dark hair curling up around her headphones, her head bobbing. She was a DJ at the college radio station. She was in my human rights class with the ancient and erudite Professor Juviler.

She sat with a group of girls in the cafeteria who exuded a bravado that I craved as I sat with my calorie-counting crew. I admired her from a safe distance for a while, suspicious that I was probably too earnest for her. Then, one day, with my adolescent esteem on some erratic upswing, I decided to email her. I told her that she was amazing and that I wanted to be her friend. Talk about earnest.

To my surprise, she wrote back. We started hanging out. Fifteen years later, we trade late-night pep talk texts when sleep evades our baby daughters, problem shoot long writing projects, and take sun-dappled walks around Lake Merritt to hash the world out side by side.

It seems like a good moment to pause in praise of our chosen family, otherwise known as our friends.

(Ewan McDowall / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

The holidays can be a wonderful, horrible time for many people. We are reminded — over gelatinous fruitcake, no less — that, though we love our families, we may not always like our families. We frequently don’t see eye to eye — a life-giving force if we have the wherewithal to explore it. They often can’t give us what we need, whether that’s praise or space or just the simplest of utterances: I’m proud of you, I see you, I love you.

This is the nature of growing up and growing away, of being someone who sheds some legacies while embracing others, of turning a critical, albeit compassionate, eye on our origins. As common as it is, it never gets any less complicated. In part, this is because it’s not something to be solved. Instead, it’s an eternal equation (subtract an expectation here, add a realization here).

As a result, a lot of us swig some pretty hard serenity with our eggnog this time of year. And, of course, the holidays can be an even more difficult time for those who don’t have the profound gift of a family to fight with. Which is why it’s such an outrageous blessing to have the opportunity to choose our friends. In fact, I believe it’s one of the most important skills we can cultivate in a child — the ability to know how to feel out who we want to be friends with and initiate and cultivate relationships. Here’s hoping you have more subtle skills than my own dorky emails.

(Bas Rogers / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

But “cool” is not really the point here. We spend so much of our lives trying to impress people we don’t actually respect — deliberately making friends with people that we deeply admire, people that make us laugh our asses off, people that push us to be more ourselves, is an under-appreciated and radical act in this culture of performance and reverence for the wrong gods (effortless perfection and exacting efficiency, to name a couple).

The idea that I could actually choose my friends came surprisingly late in life. As a girl growing up in a tight-knit community, I saw friends as inherited, almost like family: the girl on my lacrosse team, the boy who lived down the street, the son of my mom’s best friend.

Maybe, when we’re young, this is true. We don’t have the same kind of independence or capacity for initiation as we do later on. And many of these inherited friends are lovely, sometimes even the ones we would have chosen, had we had the chance. (For the luckiest among us, family members are actually the ones we would have chosen, too.)

(Shira Bea Cawaling / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

At a certain point, at least among the happiest people I know, we start to get really intentional about who we surround ourselves with. We grow unsatisfied with inheritance, with the sense that our friends are “happening to us.” We realize that we have been neglecting one of our most thrilling powers. We stop hanging out with people that make us feel like shit, just because we had the same first job at that bizarre summer camp. We have passionate friend crushes that make life infinitely more interesting.

It is our families that shape us from the very beginning, but it is our friends that truly define us down the road. They are the ones we get to invite into our lives.

So now that the family circus is over for another season and you’re turning your attention to the beginning of a new year, consider this for a resolution: become a fierce talent scout of amazing friends. Make your crew your finest act of curatorial courage. Just as many wise spiritual teachers have argued that our thoughts beget our actions, I would argue that our friends beget our culture. They become the force we measure ourselves against, the source of so much of our joy and courage. They are our respite, and our welcomed responsibility. And all that choosing makes for a very rich life.

(John Fraissinet / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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