Friday, May 25, 2012

On the Value of the Family

If ever you've wanted a bird's eye view of our culture, please, turn on the television and just start scrolling through the channels.  Each and every one of them reflects some aspect of our culture, and I'd be willing to bet that within all of about 20 seconds of scrolling, you'll come across a sitcom about a family of some sort, usually mildly dysfunctional, with a loving mother, idiot father, 3-4 children, suburban neighborhood, a distinctive neighbor for comic relief, and a trusty bar that gets visited at least twice per episode.

See what I mean?

Families are important to our society, sociologists tell us they are the basic cell of social living.  Despite what some conservative folks might say, everyone, even liberals, has family values.  Having some sort of family is part of being human, and everyone has some sort of idea of what a family ought to be (i.e., a "family value").  The difference between most "conservative" types and "liberal" types is that conservative tend to have more defined family values, while liberals (as they are in almost every circumstance) tend to leave it open for interpretation.  And there's a certain wisdom to be open-minded.  You can't eat without an open mouth, and you can't think without an open mind.  However, you'll find eating rather difficult if you never close your mouth, and thinking will be very unsatisfactory if you never close your mind around something.  Enter the family.  
For whatever reason, I find these stickers abominable.
The genius of the family is that it is the the only close companionship you don't get to choose.  In all the intimate friendships and encounters you'll experience in life, family is the only one that you have no choice in.  You don't get to choose who you're related to (spouses withholding).  In the family, you're forced to deal with people whose relationship to you is completely out of your control.  You're forced to be with people who you may or may not like, and the result is rather astounding.  You see, I think we take the sheer marvel of the family for granted.  Our families, often the most meaningful relationships we have, are forced on us.  When people lie on their death bed, they rarely say "I wish I would have been a more active member of the work community" or "I wish I would've done more the Knights of Columbus."  And not that there's anything wrong with work or the Knights of Columbus, but in many a dying breath, a person will call out for their family.  Our most beloved relationships, our greatest motivation, and the deepest affections of the heart are almost always the family.

Why is it that our families, our one significant captive relationship, inspires such deep love?  Well, because love and captivity go well together.  Love is a captivating force.  Within its very essence, it disregards safety and comfort in favor of vulnerability and captivity.  Humanity, as much as we like to think otherwise, loves to subjugate ourselves.  In the movie The Avengers (which, sadly, I've yet to see), Loki (evil God-like figure, taken from Norse mythology) gives a fascinating speech in Germany: 

Diabolically evil or not,
he's got a point.
"Kneel before me.  I said... KNEEL!  Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.  The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power.  For identity.  You were made to be ruled.  In the end, you will always kneel."

Traitorous as it may be, I'm actually with the super-villain on this one. (Granted, I'm not a huge fan of the whole idea of forcing servitude upon us...) As much as we love freedom and all the shiny things that come with it, we want even more to bow.  Long before man ever constructed ballot boxes and free market economies, he built temples, hierarchies, and, most of all, families.   The family is living breathing testimony that subservience and love go hand in hand.  It shows us that the best relationships come when we put aside our preferences, agendas, and egos, and be with the other.  

In the family, our proximity to each other demands our consideration of each other.  Because I have to live with you, I also have to consider you as a person just like me.  Even more so, we have to regard them as equal, which, if you're like me and don't always like or agree with your family members, is incredibly difficult.  I can go to London, Rome, or New Delhi and walk around people who are vastly different than me, but it is not nearly as adventurous or as taxing as trying to relate to the people I'm related to.  I might sit and study the Brits, Italians, or Indians, in all their differences from me, but I never am forced to deal with them in the way I'm forced to deal with my sister at 6:30 in the morning fighting for a shower.  I might be the most interesting man in the world, but I'm still equal to my family around the dinner table.  I still have to subjugate myself, to contain myself, to curb my own freedom for the sake of another.  As paradoxical as it sounds, my family is most beloved to me because it is most forceful upon me.  Because I'm captive in my own family, I love my family.  Because I have to deal with them, I love them very much.  In the subservience that results from the brilliant intersection of forced cohesion and personal differences, I discover my own capacity to truly, deeply love others, in a way that surpasses every other aspect of life.

You'd be hard-pressed to find something more marvelous than the family. Even though it may be held in four walls, it can be more adventurous, require more courage, more sacrifice, more exhaustion than a journey up Everest or into the Amazonian wilderness.  There's a good reason why there's so much focus and debate around the family these days:  The family is superhuman.  In the Trinity, we see God's nature as a family:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Christ's first experiences of being a human were in a family.  Family is carved deep into the very heart of humanity.  We debate and fight about family because family is one of the few things worth debating and fighting over.  I'm not telling you which side to fight for, although it's rather obvious where I'll stand on this issue, but for God's sake, make sure you understand the gravity of this ancient idea we call family.

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