The Artificial Family

I grew up on a ship. Well, not really grew up exactly, more spent four very key years of my youth onboard a ship. It’s a long story. The thing about living on a ship, though, was that with only two hundred people on board it was a small community. Smaller still were the number of kids on board. I’m not kidding when I say there were a handful. Out of necessity we became more of a family than a group of friends. Life’s changed and gone on, but even though it’s been several several years since those days I still find myself drawn to stories about that sense of community, about building that group of people who aren’t so much friends as they are family.

There’s this Japanese word, nakama, that has no proper English translation. A rough rendition of it means something to the effect of a deep friendship not unlike family. Everyone can think of people fitting that description. And if not, well, I’m so sorry, you’re missing out.

This concept of friends who are family is everywhere in literature. Like Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Harry Potter. Once they became friends nothing stood in their way. They fought with each other, but, when they chips were down, they were there for each other. They were those good friends who came out on top. You’ve got the protagonists of Zombieland, or the members of the Bartlett administration in The West Wing, the heroes in Chuck, Drake and Sully in Uncharted, or the Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that group of friends who, even if they don’t always like each other, will stick together through it all.

Lost shows just how strong that relationship is. The survivors on the island don’t get along. They fight, they steal, they kill; they really don’t get along. But the relationships that form over time are real. They might not always be friends but throughout the six seasons they come to be something like a (highly dysfunctional Arrested Development-esque) family. Their bonds are to the point where in the end, it’s all that really mattered, and as long as they have each other, they will be content.

So what draws this people together? CS Lewis describes friendship as “the moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”. There’s this movie out now called The Avengers that you may have heard of. The titular Avengers are all lonely people in their own way; Joss Whedon said so himself. Their connection that forms comes from being lonely together. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner – the two scientisty characters – have a conversation about it; about having something that is both a blessing and a curse. It was their moment of realizing they weren’t the only one alone. The seed of friendship, leading to that team, that community of people who can’t be broken.

Then there’s Community (did you really think I’d let that semi-forced transition slip by?). The Study Group has the common ground of all being students Greendale Community College. Over the seasons they’ve grown closer and had their moments. Like all of these artificial families; they break at the edges. But the heart of it is simple: they were all at Greendale lacking something, needing someone, lacking stability, or any host of reasons. They found what they needed in each other, creating that familial bond in the process. Yes, they are (in their own words), a dysfunctional and incestuous family, but they are one all the same. A, you know, community. Hence the name.

Firefly, another one of Whedon’s creations that I love, is another example of this bond. The crew of Serenity have been with each other through a lot. They’ve seen the best and the worst of each other and they definitely don’t always like each other. But since they’re there together on that ship, they have no choice but to reconcile and stick with it. They can’t walk away from it because they’re in it together, no matter what. Like the members of Community’s Study Group and the Avengers: they’re alone. They’ve left their lives behind and are wandering the black alone together. By the time the film Serenity rolls around they’ve gone beyond just being crew members who live on the same ship.

So yeah I’m drawn to the story of the artificial family. That sense of building a group of friends who will stick with you through it all. People who find what they need in each other, finding strength in their bonds.

A few months ago I met up with some of the others who had been kids on the ship the same time I was. Most of us hadn’t seen or hardly spoken to each other in years. But when we sat down together it was as if we hadn’t missed a day. Life went on and our ship was gone, but our connection was still there.

Makes sense though, we’re family.

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