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Blood is thicker than water, but bile is bitter

Red Drop falling in water.

An exercise I always set for my students learning about Family Therapy is for them to write an essay about themselves and their family. I will get them to draw their family tree and to subsequently infer how their parents, grandparents, and events from their formative years may have shaped them into who they are today.

As an educator, I experience a myriad of impressions while reading through these essays, some which give me a distinct feeling of opening up a time capsule and peering into some intimate details of my students’ lives. This is especially true of the narratives from the more mature students, whose accounts of major events that shaped them actually reflect our collective history, both cultural and social.

There were stories of family migration, and there were also many that told of more economically-challenging times when their families were busy eking out a living. Others gave sociological snapshots of traditional family values, such as the distinct preference for male children and how they were given more opportunities for education.

Two common themes in the stories stood out.

One of them touches on the saying: “Blood is thicker than water.” In researching the meaning of this statement, I realised how misunderstood and misused it has been. It had meant to say that the bonds forged in times of war and conflict, where blood was split, were stronger than even family ones, where the presence of birth waters announced the arrival of a new family member.

However, because of how we have misinterpreted the old saying, we tend to more easily forgive the members of our family, no matter how many times they have wronged or disappointed us, due to the fact that “blood is thicker”!

I have seen this ‘truth’ play itself out in families which continue to bail out their kin who are mired in vices such as gambling. They would pay off their debts on the promise or hope that the gambler would change his ways, only to be disappointed time and time again. I have also witnessed wives who return to their abusive husbands and give them another chance to change, even though they have broken many promises to do so.

Running counter to the theme of families believing in the strength of blood ties is that of severing of familial ties as a consequence of profound disappointment and betrayal.

The ‘bad blood’ and bile that arose out of some misunderstandings and conflicts can be so toxic that some families have fractured permanently. They have cut each other off and not only do they not contact each other, they may even forbid their children to do so.

How it is possible that there are these two contrasting pictures of families? Are they perhaps the opposite sides of the same coin – the ‘coin’ being the position of high regard we place on family bonds?

I have noticed that for some families this regard has been put on so high a pedestal that many would fight tooth-and-nail to preserve and protect it. But when such regard is unappreciated or is treated with contempt, some respond by ending familial relationships, along with privileges such as patience and forgiveness.

When family break-ups occur, it begs the question – is it right to cut a family member off completely? It may be understandable that one finds it hard to forgive and accept a recalcitrant sibling or child, but should it ever amount to banishing them from all contact?

As believers in Christ, we are exhorted to be forgiving. But this can understandably be very difficult. When it is challenging, I remind myself that the Lord Himself has forgiven us time and time again. Instead of turning His back on us, He welcomes us with open arms, even with the knowledge that we are going to let Him down again.

Finally, I am constantly reminded of the futility of unforgiveness – that even if we are to cut a family member off utterly, the flow of bitter bile is seldom, if ever, quenched. Open dialogue and whole-hearted forgiveness are the only ways to achieve full reconciliation.


Benny Bong –

has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.