Daniela is back from a short, intense visit to Albania; to her daughter’s partner’s family. It’s the sense of family, of the importance of community that really impresses her. We’re such an individualistic society (Switzerland), she laments. She loves the hospitality, the blessing they were received with and sent away with. She tells of her host who was dealing with some real problems when an auntie comes to visit. The problems are matter-of-factly set aside and the auntie hosted as if she was the most important person. The ‘we’ is more important than the ‘I’.
Tatjana listens. She’s Swiss and married for 15 years to an Italian from a traditional background. “I first thought it was great too,” she says. But there’s a flip side. The ‘I’ is often squashed. “I’ve learned to appreciate the sense of community in these cultures,” Tatjana explains. “But I also appreciate the Swiss culture for allowing me to be me.”
I’m intrigued with this conversation. These are old European cultures. But they seem to have more in common with the African family model than our North American one. I remember a conversation with Loveness from Mpongwe, Zambia who was struggling with the demands of family in her village, especially her in-laws. They seemed to expect her to share everything with them. They resented her husband`s encouragement to her to improve her economic and educational situation.
Zambians lament how they have to make space for family members who visit for long stretches at a time; of having to stretch food or even go without to be able to adequately provide for those visiting. At the same time they are disturbed when their young people no longer show the proper amount of respect to their elders. They think it is wrong that we put our aging parents in homes instead of taking care of them ourselves.
Having to conform to the opinions of the larger group, which are often dictated by tradition or the family matriarch or patriarch can be a situation rife for conflict. But those problems are often balanced by a strong sense of security, of belonging that tends to get lost in an individualistic society.
I read about an increased sense of loneliness in our western World. Being an individual is great, but we still need each other. Can we learn to revive the ‘we’; to live more in community?
The folks in Zambia are struggling to find ways to become individuals, while not losing the security and power of family and community.
Maybe we can help each other, share our experiences. Our increasingly multi-cultural societies give us some great opportunities for this, often right next door!