A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.'
- George Moore
Having just returned home from my Thanksgiving visit with the family, I've been reflecting on what family means in the larger context of the world.
We live in a time in which family is probably more devalued than at any time in our nation's existence. It may be that in the past, home and family were idealized to a degree; nowadays, at least in our popular culture and in common wisdom, many people have become cynics about family and home. How often do we hear people disparaging their families, referring to them as 'dysfunctional'? Or airing their family's dirty laundry in public, describing the horrible childhood they supposedly had with uncaring parents, or alcoholism, and all the rest?
Certainly I don't doubt that there are truly appalling families out there; the newspapers and TV talk shows serve up a steady diet of stories of horrible abuse of various kinds. And I encounter more people, especially younger people, who think that home and family are archaic concepts; I've heard more than a few young people say that their friends or coworkers are their family, and that they feel estranged from their blood kin. This is probably more true of urban people. We live in a time of weakened bonds and diminishing social ties. Many of us live rootless, mobile lives, shifting from place to place because of career or simply personal whim. The pervasive liberal idea that family and origin are limiting concepts, and that people should be 'free' to define themselves outside the racial, national, kinship, and gender categories, is a corrosive idea in our day.
But we live in a time in which many people, seeing the flaws and imperfections in their own families, declare them 'dysfunctional' and not worthy of the loyalty and duty people used to feel towards kin.
My family is probably a typical American family in many ways. And many of the trends I see in my family reflect what is going on in America generally: for instance, many, if not most, of the younger generation are shunning marriage, or postponing it until after the age of 30. Many of the younger folks are overeducated; 'perpetual students', still taking college courses or pursuing graduate degrees long past what used to be marriageable age. And when they finally complete their studies, they are saddled with huge debts as they launch careers. This is a further disincentive to marry and reproduce.
So there are few babies and little ones in our larger family circle. I do have one cousin who has fathered 11 children, but he is the exception. Most have small families, by contrast to my grandparents, who had 13 children on my father's side, and 8 children on my mothers.
So we are dwindling away, and fewer of the younger people bother to keep up the extended family ties that were so central to the older generations. Coming to the family reunions and to family holiday celebrations is not a priority with the younger generations.
Every other day, it seems, we read articles about the low birth rates of Americans, and the 'need' for mass immigration to replenish our population. Hence our current tidal wave of immigration, and people increasingly believe that mass immigration is 'necessary.'
In a society where children are encouraged to remain adolescents until they are long past that stage of life, many of the younger folks are still kids at age 25-30. Emotionally and behaviorally they are more like 18-year-olds. And there is an epidemic of these young adults moving back home to Mama and Daddy. I see it everywhere, not just in my family.
In this respect, the generation gap increases: we have younger generations who are often reluctant to step into adults' size shoes and go out into the world, and we have older folks who enable this perpetually adolescent behavior by their overindulgence. Too often the younger folks don't want to 'put away childish things', and the parents fail to encourage them to do so.
So generationally there are big differences within my family circle; we have the 'Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, and their children and grandchildren. Probably at no time in America's history have the generations been so disparate; we simply view the world and ourselves differently.
This is reflected in our views on politics and world events, feelings can run very high as we find ourselves on opposite sides of some of the burning issues of the day. Many people in my family are very politically-minded, and very strong in their beliefs (like yours truly) and when we disagree, heated exchanges happen. During my Thanksgiving visit I very nearly had words with a close family member, but we each drew back and held our tongues.
But what keeps the differences in check is that we as a family are bound together by shared origins, shared sentiments around home and kin, and shared memories. And a shared loyalty.
This past summer, at our family reunion, we all met as the descendants of my great-grandparents, whose pictures were prominently displayed in a place of honor. As I looked around, I saw a varied group of people but we were united by a common bond of descent, heritage, and memory. We are also united by being, with very few exceptions, a group of believing Christians, as generations of our ancestors were.
And we are fortunate (or blessed, shall I say) that we know our ancestry and origins for many generations back; we are bound by a common pride in the accomplishments of our forefathers, by their struggles, and by their common everyday heroism in prevailing during difficult times, and doing so without compromising the family honor and decency.
And in knowing our ancestors and their doings, we have a stronger sense of who we are.
There is a sense of wholeness in seeing ourselves in our ancestors and our living kin; a recognition, and a certainty of where we belong in this world. There is a sense of our mutual acceptance of who we are, warts and all. We have our 'black sheep' and prodigals in the family, but that's not who we are.
In our family we know each others' weaknesses and faults and sins; we have our skeletons in the closet, like each and every family does, but we are a forgiving family ultimately. And though we don't always agree, we stick together in trials and difficulties. We are fiercely loyal to one another. So it should be in a healthy nation, with a sense of itself.
The nation is, after all, just the family writ large -- or it should be. Our nation began as a group of united people with a common origin.
But in this day and age we are, as a nation and people, just like many individuals, too quick to air our national dirty laundry, and to revisit past wrongs and mistakes and sins of our national family. As a result we have become uncomfortable with who we are, and doubtful about our worthiness, and about whether we deserve our comforts and successes.
Our collective voice in the 'media' and popular culture is too focused on labeling our national family 'dysfunctional', in finding fault and condemning, in harping on past failings. Thus our national family members no longer feel the loyalty and the pride and the sense of commonality that holds a family together. We are on the way to becoming an atomized, rootless, alienated people, with no past, few lasting bonds, and a diminishing sense of who we are -- or worse yet, a false sense of who we are. We are too quick to be self-critical and self-castigating, too quick to denigrate our forefathers for their flaws.
All of these things weaken us as a nation, just as these things weaken the family.
And the tendency to avoid adult responsibilities and behavior is also reflected in a country in which many people neglect their civic duties, and prefer to hole up in their own homes with their toys and diversions and games, willfully oblivious to the fact that the country is in dire distress. They prefer not to deal with it, and busy themselves with possessions and sense-pleasures.
Is there any hope of restoring our common national family? As we become outnumbered by millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, and their progeny, we will either reassert ourselves, reclaim our national confidence --- or we will become another lost colony, like the Roanoke colony whose fate is unknown and unrecorded. Maybe they were absorbed into the local Indian population, just as our descendants may vanish into a multicultural 'America.' Or we will become as today's Indians, small groups isolated within a larger, foreign society.
My hope is that we will rediscover our commonality and kinship, and realize that we will have to unite against the threats we face. When our backs are to the wall, I hope we will find that strength and determination that enabled our forefathers to dominate this continent.
There are, despite our flaws, many strong families within our country; as long as this is true, there is hope for our nation, our larger family.
Just as I see strength in my own family, despite our differences and our flaws, I see the same potential in my fellow Americans, who are, after all, my extended family.
Time for a reawakening of our spirit, and for a real family reunion.