"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Family! What's It Good For?

In case you haven’t noticed, we are a nation that has become increasingly divided -- "polarized" was the overused buzzword of the 00s, though it seemed much too often apropos.

And as much as I’m cautious to accept broad-sweeping generalizations of cultural trends, I’m willing to acknowledge widening chasms where I see them. When in a hopeful mood, I’m inclined to believe that the most healthy movements to emerge in the coming decade will in some way face this polarization and by extension formulate healthy directions that, at the very least, point to islands of reality we might all sail toward together (alas, if only momentarily).

But since the stated subject is the family, let’s get more specific. You tell me this: Are we or are we not more cognizant now than we were a decade ago of family members’ positions on “hot button” political topics? And aren’t we really about two sentences away from a verbal throw-down when one of these topics comes up?

A stay at my mom and dad’s over Christmas is what got me really thinking of this -- in particular a brief though heated discussion with my sister on the topic of the underwear bomber.

I’m not going to feign some newly discovered neutrality here: I’m still thinking about the words exchanged, still thinking about why it is that some people believe invoking Manichean distinctions of good and evil is in and of itself a sign of strength and virtue and -- more devastating and dangerous, as I see it -- that doing so effects magical outcomes that make us “safer.”

No, I will not listen passively to people -- even my beautiful sister -- who parrot notions they've been fed by demagogues, notions they've given no critical analysis to themselves.

And yet, man cannot live on heated political debate alone.

As I was thinking about this on my drive back to Madison (you know, that hotbed of liberalism), I couldn’t help but think of a powerful essay I’ve read several times now -- “Family” by Marilynne Robinson. Early on in her critique and analysis of the modern family, she addresses what may often be forgotten as we writhe in frustration when encountering positions that are anathema to our own -- especially from family members.
I think the biological family is especially compelling to us because it is, in fact, very arbitrary in its composition. I would never suggest so rude an experiment as calculating the percentage of one’s relatives one would actually choose as friends…. And that is the charm and the genius of the institution. It implies that help and kindness and loyalty are owed where they are perhaps by no means merited. Owed, that is, even to ourselves. It implies that we are in some few circumstances excused from the degrading need to judge others’ claims on us, excused from the struggle to keep our thumb off the scales of reciprocity.

Of course families do not act this way, always or even typically, certainly not here, certainly not now. But we recognize such duty and loyalty as quintessentially familial where we see it.
We may seek associations outside of the family to reinforce and enhance our personal identities -- yes, obviously a natural, even vital tendency. But do we sometimes obscure or ignore what may be the most profound of the psychological balms the family can provide -- unconditional loyalty? Have we, as Robinson puts it much more succinctly, “reasoned our way to uniformly conditional relationships”?

Don’t misunderstand me. I certainly realize that the family unit may of course serve as an incubator of dysfunction and a perpetuator of putrid notions. An evaluation, per se, of one’s family dynamics is unquestionably deeply personal -- and perhaps even unwarranted. On the other hand, I would never suggest a whitewash of reality in order to elevate an abstract institution. (Anyone see that going on anywhere else in this culture?)

However, in light of Robinson’s perspective, I do have to say that her point about the family's "charm and genius” resonates with me in important ways. To be clear, it is not that I have struggled with finding value in family; it is that the nature of this value, so uniquely precious, so separate from so much else, has sometimes eluded me.

I cannot speak to whatever it is you personally feel deep inside when the word “family” is invoked. And maybe everything I’m writing here is simply an indicator of just how fortunate I am in this regard. Well then, it is duly noted here.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” there is a moving exchange between a husband and wife as they deal with the unexpected return of an aging farm hand, a man whose signature trait, as far as the husband is concerned, was his galling tendency to disappear when he was needed most:
[Wife] “Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”

[Husband] “Home,” he mocked gently.

[Wife] “Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

[Husband] “I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Okay, so maybe you're not "worn out upon the trail." But still: Forgive my heavy-handedness here, but if you, like me, have a place to go where “They have to take you in,” before you allow the contrarian and irrational (as you see it) voices of your family to overwhelm you, think on these words, again from Marilynne Robinson, this time from the conclusion of her essay “Facing Reality”: “Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced.”