All in the Family
Succession reminds us that family is forever
“The family is the test of freedom; because the family is the only thing that the free man makes for himself and by himself.” — G.K. Chesterton, 1919
This is not a pop culture newsletter—something that should be painfully obvious even if you only glance at the artwork in every issue.
Pop culture is akin to a digital watch. It gives us a precise measurement of the time we’re in, but, as David McCullough observed, “is the perfect symbol of an imbalance in outlook in our day. It tells us only the time it is now, at this instant, as if that were all anyone would wish or need to know.”
This newsletter is a bridge that spans time, abutting the past on one end and the future on the other, firmly set on footings embedded in the present.
So today, when I refer to Succession, you’ll understand that this is more than a pop culture reference.
HBO’s Golden Globe-nominated series concerns the Roy family, whose patriarch Logan runs a media conglomerate with an iron fist. Every one of Logan Roy’s four children is so wildly offensive, conniving, self-serving, inept, and unable to show love, you wouldn’t be mistaken if you thought that they put the “F.U.” in dysfunctional.
This is a far cry from the scrubbed innocence of Father Knows Best from the 1950s, in which Robert Young’s Jim Anderson offered sage advice to his children. Indeed, if the HBO show were named for Logan’s paternal abilities, it would be Father Knows More Than You Ever Will, and Don’t Even Think About Asking, You Little Ingrates.
Each of his children is vying for some piece of the family fortune, some aspect of their father’s love, all while clawing their way to supremacy in the chain of command and receiving nary a shred of affection or tutelage in the business.
It’s a modern twist on King Lear, in which Shakespeare’s destitute and insane king plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, bequeathing the largest share to the child who loves him most. Except in the modern edition, the elder Roy is looking for competence and killer instinct; his offspring are the ones who are looking for love.
Ironically, for a show called Succession, by the end of Season 3, not one of Logan’s children has been a success in their efforts. It’s hard to imagine any one of these Machiavellian misfits surviving a corporate structure that didn’t involve bloodlines.
“He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” — Francis Bacon, 1625
There are certain family values that are passed from one generation to the next. But which family and what values? These vary from era to era and from place to place.
It could be the arts endowment proclivities of the Medici in 15th century Florence, or the political aspirations of the Kennedys in Brookline. Or even the murderous tendencies of the Corleones in New York.
As much as genetics play a role in our values and culture, so do our surroundings. We are by-products of the cosmic blend of each, mixed with a dash of luck and a pinch of opportunity, served up to us on a platter not of our own choosing.
When we do have an opportunity to surround ourselves with people of our own choosing, we tend to gravitate toward people whose values are similar to ours, who fill a gap in our knowledge or abilities, and who make us feel good about who we are.
My friend Laura Gassner Otting calls these people framily.
You might even consider your work colleagues like family. There are employers who call their teams “family.” They would be wise to avoid that, however.
“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.” — Mario Puzo, 2001
Typically, loyalty in employment situations is one way. You may buy into the family analogy of the workplace, but most people are at-will employees, meaning they can be fired at a moment’s notice.
I have friends who have put in nearly a decade of work at the same company—an unheard of tenure these days—who were then unceremoniously dumped. What kind of family treats you like that? What family values does that represent?
We have our home families and our work associates. While we may spend more time with our colleagues, it’s the blood ties that are the strongest.
These are the people who will laugh with you when you’re on vacation, bring you chicken soup when you’re in bed with a fever, and stand at your gravesite to remember you at your funeral.
When you reach your twilight years and, like Logan Roy, have bladder control issues, who will help you find the restroom or clean you up? (There’s a big hint for the season finale right there.)
The relationships you invest in will be the ones that manifest themselves at the end of your life.
In short, figure out which people matter most to you.
Now ask yourself: do they know it?
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.