When Strangers Become Family: The Importance of Choosing Ties That Bind

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In many cultures, the biological family reigns supreme. However, as the television show ‘Friday Night Lights’ points out, there is a lot of power and importance in community and in ‘families by choice’.

I’ve just read that the television show Friday Night Lights will be rerun again, this time on Pivot TV. The digital channel will join ABC Family and ESPN, as networks that have rerun the series. This is not surprising, as FNL is an amazingly well-written, well-acted and beautifully shot series. If you’ve never seen the show, you really should treat yourself to it because it is truly a work of art! Unfortunately, during its original run, FNL had difficulty finding an audience because a lot of people were turned off by the idea of a show about Texas football. They were wrong. Yes, football is featured but it is used more as a narrative device than anything else; at its heart, FNL is about family, and that is one of the main reasons I find the show so compelling.

As a family psychologist (and right there, you can see part of the appeal for me), I learned long ago that so much of who people are, what they value and how they act stems from their family of origin. Human beings don’t grow up in a vacuum; we are shaped by the people around us and, usually, family members are by far the most influential. The FNL creators recognized this, which is why we were shown the intimate family dynamics of every single major character. The writers knew that, in order to make the audience fall in love with these characters, we had to know where they came from and understand their motivations.

But the show’s sense of family didn’t stop with mere biological considerations. One of the most amazing things about FNL is that it understood at its core that family is about more than blood. Family is about community; about the people you allow to become close to you. Family is about those who will share in the good times and the bad; the people for whom you will sacrifice some part of yourself in order to ensure their happiness. And a lot of times, family has absolutely nothing to do with bloodlines. That is why we repeatedly watched characters extend themselves to help a friend come to grips with disability, grieve the death of a parent, celebrate going to college, deal with deadbeat parents, or simply offer comfort through life’s trials and tribulations. It was lovely to watch.

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The heartwarming nature of FNL‘s fictional world of Dillon, Texas is why it sometimes is difficult for me to return to reality. These days it seems like people define family so narrowly, mostly in terms of close biological ties, that they’ve forgotten the broader definition of togetherness. For example, I see numerous family bumper stickers (the ones which depict the individuals that make up the nuclear family), which puzzles me because I don’t understand the purpose. Are they supposed to be funny, or impressive? Or am I just missing what message they’re trying to convey? Whatever the goal, it comes across as very insular. I feel the same way when I watch parents cheer only for their own child during a baseball game (umm….isn’t it, you know, a TEAM sport?), or clap only for their child at a school recognition ceremony. What? It would kill them to cheer or clap for every child (or at least more than just their own), since they’re sitting there doing nothing else anyway? I just don’t get it.

Similarly, I wonder about people who do little beyond being with their family members and attending their functions. Friends, hobbies and any non-family-related activities (forget about community functions) constantly get tossed to the side. And then there is the chastisement given to people without children. I have heard people call childless (or child-free — pick your favorite) individuals lazy and selfish. Sometimes they even try to scare them by asking who will take care of them in their old age, as if having children is any guarantee that they will care for you when you’re older. Whatever happened to the realization that daily parenting is not for everyone, and those who either cannot or choose not to have biological children still have much to offer the community? Why is it that many people seem to believe that only parents can have a positive impact, or that only people with similar bloodlines matter? It’s like we have some kind of weird fetishization of biological ties.

Yes, biological family is important, but community matters too and it seems as though many have forgotten this. We ignore community at our peril because, as our world gets larger, our day-to-day interactions become smaller. We need places we can go outside the home where everybody knows our name, places where there are people who are willing to suffer, celebrate and grieve with us. We need places filled with people who care and are willing to be part of our lives, people who will become our ‘family by choice’. Yet there seem to be fewer and fewer of them.

I’ve thought a lot about the reasons why community has fallen to the wayside. A large part of it is that we have less time to spend and, thus, must make choices about what we do. Technology also plays a major role because, as it creates fewer ‘real time’ interactions, we are increasingly uncertain of how to let new people into our lives. Or maybe it is our fear of rejection that keeps us apart. Biological family seems safe because they have to love us (or so we like to believe), while those who are unrelated must choose to care. Risking that vulnerability can be scary, so we retreat into our homes.

However, as FNL points out, ultimately we are the ones who miss out when we do not welcome the community into our lives. We may be able to avoid yucky community breakfasts, but we also miss out on the words of support, warm smiles and even just pats on the back that come along with rubbery pancakes. We may be able to escape attending local sporting events but we also miss out on the roar of the crowd or the thrill that comes with winning. We may be able to dodge involvement with the drama in other people’s lives but we also miss out on the soul-enriching opportunity to help others and, eventually, the chance to get helped in return. FNL points out these choices to us ‘in living color’ and it is powerful.

Human beings are social creatures; we have always lived in groups for a reason. Perhaps it is time we remembered that. And to help us along the way, I think we should all spend some time with the citizens of Dillon. If you allow them into your lives, soon they will feel like family.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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