Like all boring, old-school, heterosexual-coupling-based family units, I have the expected two sides of my extended tribe. I have my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family, who I have grown up observing, engaging, absorbing, cringing at, appreciating, being horrified by and loving throughout my life.
Most family issues, or even harmless ticks, come down to communication, or more often a lack of it. A recent frivolous exchange about unsure travel plans on both sides of my family led me to wondering if the two sides of my family had a pattern to their idiosyncrasies. As my mind wandered, it suddenly occurred to me that one side were ostriches and the other were swans.
First, let’s be clear that this is a metaphor, so it involves a lot of poetic license. I know a lot of what I’m saying about these birds, for comparison, is not factually true for the actual creatures. Consider it a colourful parable and follow along.
What sort of a bird is an Ostrich?
For our purposes, an ostrich is a large, magnificent creature. Comes with a lot of pedigree. It’s from the same family as the extinct elephant bird, one of the largest birds to ever walk the Earth. Ostriches are powerful, very proud of their plumage, dangerously confrontational, make a lot of noise in conflict situations, and they stick their head in the sand. Hey, I did say this was not scientific. Stay with me.
What sort of a bird is the Swan?
Pride is one of the things that come to mind with the image of the swan. It’s in all our stories, so let’s stick to that. Swans are very proper, measured in impression, but they can be very confrontational birds too. They are territorial and quick to attack. No hiding under the water for these creatures. They will honk to high heaven, attack you first and ask questions later.
Why these particular birds?
Birds have display and showing off as part of their basic biological instinct. These birds in particular have it in buckets, and I think so do families, or any grouping of humans.
More specifically, while the ostrich might bury its head in the sand till it’s too late, and the swan will attack things head-on without reason, eventually the end result in both cases is a lot of ineffectual and unnecessary posturing.
That then, in an egg shell, was my minor revelation. One side of my family tends to ignore things purposefully until it’s too late. One side head-butts things that don’t need to be. One set has seen everything but knows nothing. The other knows everything but has seen nothing. In both cases it ends in pointless dramatics. Hence, one side are ostriches and the other side are swans.
I’m all for gross generalisations if they help you practically navigate and understand the world, after all, science is full of them, such as Newton’s Laws of Motions — but I tend to question oversimplifications even within those.
I thought a bit deeper about the two sides of my family and realised their behavior was not as simple as full-time-ostrich vs full-time-swan. No, this is where the plot thickened because it became clear that both halves of my tribe were both ostriches and swans but in opposing circumstances.
One half of my family are happy to hide and ignore reality in practical, worldly issues, while they are pro-actively confrontational in personal issues. The other half of my family is largely the opposite. The ostriches are swans and the swans are ostriches, depending on the direction of the wind. All for the end result of in honking, kicking, feather-ruffling, wing-thrashing drama, of course.
My place among the birds
The very fact that I’ve described these two sets of behaviours in less than complimentary terms should make it clear that I would prefer to be neither swan nor ostrich. I know the same is true of my extended siblings on both sides of my family. By some wonderful fluke of happenstance, my cousins have grown up to be relatively self-analysing and grounded individuals in comparison to what we saw growing up. Each set of my cousins on each side of my family will likely read this ramble and be nodding in agreement to much of the behaviour I’ve described, because we’ve sat together at various times and talked about this at length in various guises, even if never using ostriches and swans as our metaphor.
Both sets of my familial peers are well aware of the head burying in sand, the uncalled for honking attacks, and the mess of hurt and feathers at the end. All of us, in our own varying ways, have tried and continue trying not to follow too closely in the claw prints of our ancestors.
Personally, I’m glad to have seen these two extremes, though practically it has had no benefits. Being a part of both these halves of my family, I am not exempt from being ostrich or swan. I have been both and continue to be when I let my guard down. Our families have a deeper impact on our persona than we like to admit to ourselves as idealistic, individualistic creatures. All the more reason to be cognizant of our influences and be mindful of not being what we don’t want to be.
I try to find a balance between the cowardice and the foolish bravado, because somewhere in there is a sweet spot where we can be thoughtful, caring people without being destructive or being taken advantage of, and we don’t have to be bird-brained about it.
Why are families so bird-brained?
I started off analysing myself and my family, but as I dig deeper into these thoughts, I’m sure many of you reading this are recognising themselves and their own families in much of what I’m saying, even though we’re not related. Why do we all have similar experiences, and why do families seem to be so bird-brained?
I believe families are the perfect unit for us to study and come to realisations about, because we get to see the inner workings of them on a very personal level. However, the behaviour of families is merely a dramatic symptom of a wider issue.
If you think about it, families, groups, tribes, clubs, religions, organisations, any flock of human beings tend towards being bird-brained because of one broad reason. We all claim moral superiority based on something allegedly accomplished generations ago, while taking no heed of our own behaviour today. That’s it. Whether as gigantic countries or as minuscule families, all the flying feathers and honking and dramatics is because of valuing our made-up pedigree more than our individual, practical and current behaviour.
What did you personally do today? Forget your village, our club, your tribe, your cult, your prestigious faceless company. What did you as a person do today to be proud of? Make sure you have a good answer to that and you will rebuild all your families, of blood or love or friendship, into what families are meant to do: Make everyone a better member of all the other families they belong to.