Losing an uncle made me think about where we would be without our uncles?
Earlier this year my uncle Brian passed away. His death seemed to tap into an ocean of emotions for me. I cried harder than I did at my own father’s funeral. In the last 20 years we really were not close, why was I so broken? His death made me realize I was mourning the loss of the unsung uncles in my life.
Growing up, my uncles were big men. They brought other worlds closer and made them seem possible. They would never stay long, but their impact changed my life.
Can a man be a man without an uncle? The self made man is a myth that sells a lot of movies. The reality is found in our group homes and our jails; a leaderless childhood often results in an aimless adulthood. No matter how healthy, or how broken our childhoods, we all need someone to show us the way. For many of us, uncles fill the role.
Uncles fill the gaps
Fathers are the central male figure for most of us. Growing up, I did not have the strongest relationship with my father. I am past my adolescent anger and blame, so I will chalk the distance up to alcohol and a mutually un-negotiated distance. My growing up years would have been monumentally harder if not for my uncles. They helped to fill in the gaps left unfilled by my relationship with my father.
Many of us have a mix of formal and informal uncles. Throughout my growing years, my uncle-army consisted of uncles by blood and by marriage, uncles who were family friends and a few parachute-uncles (a Scout leader and a few Church Pastors).
Uncles are like satellites, often flying in unnoticed orbits. In our everyday lives, satellites help us with navigation and communication, they aid us to live safely and they can make life more entertaining. Uncles do much of the same work: supporting navigation through the tight spots, giving hints that can make things a little safer, and keeping things entertaining.
As we grow up, our uncle-satellites continue to broadcast. Sometimes they become a little more distant because of their own growing families, their adult responsibilities and because of physical distance. Their orbit may have lengthened, but the signals are just as important.
I still remember how, as a teen, my uncle Brian taught me to shake hands and how he gave me my first real job. He modeled genuine customer service, integrity and faith. My uncle Jack taught me how to shave and gave me my first unofficial driving lesson. Many of my uncles offered me the privilege of proximity. Getting a glimpse into what they saw as important, how they loved and what made them excited opened my developing mind.
Family BBQ’s can be a great time for stories and free-association. At a recent BBQ, I talked to some of my family about the impact of uncles on their lives.
My brother surprised me. He said that he had recently been thinking about the same thing. How is it that uncles play such a huge role in our lives, yet we can let their importance go unnoticed and unthanked?
For my brother, he is closer in age to some of our uncles and aunts and they feel more like an “Unclebrother” and “Sisteraunt.” He talked about how uncles sparked his love of music, his love for people, and his love for adventure and travel. Some uncles, he said, are more like aspirations (who we hope to be like, one day). For us, it was uncle Rance, who literally fixed anything long before Google or YouTube begat their offspring.
Other family members reflected that uncles are a reassuring presence, they validate our strengths and our dreams. One of my nieces discussed how I inspired her to become more spiritual. Neither of us could remember what it was that I said or did, but she came away feeling closer to God. I think that’s the point. With uncles, we may not remember the specific ways they impacted us. It is as if their lives are free WiFi, where we get a glimpse of what life can be like through their eyes.
Parents provide the direction and the discipline, but uncles often take a more indirect route. This can make it easier to hear what they have to say. Some of my nieces and nephews have had their lives turned around because they were influenced by the passions they saw in their uncles (and aunts). Hearing about their uncle’s travel or earth-friendly lifestyles helped to pull them toward a better adulthood.
Uncles give roots
Uncles root us, even when life can go sideways. The Latin root word for uncle means “little grandfather.” Uncles can be more accessible than grandfathers because they are similar in age and interests.
Sometimes, uncles may be the ones who give a less-than-helpful influence. Uncles may the be path to our first (and our worst) experiences with alcohol or substance use. They may not be too far ahead of us and lack the wisdom to steer us away.
Uncles are valuable because we know them. Because we see them up close, we can put ourselves into their shoes and learn from how they think about the world.
My uncles gave me roots. Their examples taught me about the importance of family, how love is messy but it stays, how faith can inspire us to be better humans and the value of presence. The memories serve as witnesses that pull me toward the things I aspire to be.
This is my way of thanking all of my uncles. Without you, I would not be who I am today.
This week, thank an uncle. Tell him how he influenced you. And know that for someone, you are the Satellite.
Keep it Real