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These days, it’s so easy to give up on family. If you quarrel with a sibling, a parent, or a child and never want to talk to them again, or if you’re a young person and don’t want to have any children at all, there are always ersatz families on the television waiting to welcome you into their home.
These families have the virtue of never asking a single thing of their viewers — other than to spend a little time watching. Maybe they have a lesson to teach or a few laughs to give. Each member of the fake family is carefully brought into existence by the writers to appeal to the audience. Each character is writ large, cracking jokes that a real family member would never have the wit to make, getting in and out of adventures seamlessly, and drifting through all sorts of exciting events with no down-time at all. Their lives are enticing and we feel like a part of it. No effort required.
Then, if there’s no comfort to be had from television families, there are always internet subgroups.
Every social media feed is curated to show you groups into which you can seamlessly fit. You can join these groups and be treated to an endless stream of content from like-minded individuals. You can like their posts, comment, and build digital relationships. It’s easy. After all, everyone in the group is there for the same subculture. The Star Wars people find their people. The political partisans get into their echo chambers. The fans of obscurities like medieval Sarum Rite English Catholicism can even find a place to call home. We can all find our tribe in a corner of the internet.
It feels optional
Perhaps this is the exact reason why people are quick these days to distance biological family or don’t see the appeal of ever having children. Family seems an optional state of life. If an uncle has different political views or can’t stop talking about alien invasions, he might no longer be invited over for Christmas dinner. If kids are inconvenient because their needs would cramp the lifestyle of the potential parents, the couple decides to never become parents in the first place.
This same issue crops up with local neighborhoods. When I was growing up, my parents personally knew every neighbor on the block. The kids all came out and played with each other. The adults, as different as they were, got along. Now, I suspect that if you made a concerted attempt to meet new neighbors, your efforts would be met with apathy. Everyone already has friends online with whom they have a lot more in common. Meeting a neighbor is a risk because they might be very different in terms of politics, personality, religion, and lifestyle. Maybe you won’t like the new neighbor and you don’t want to be stuck having to chat every time you cross paths while walking the dogs.
All this diversity of groups, tribes, and choices that allow us to enter subgroups is supposedly broadening. Whatever your interest – and unlike family and neighbors — you’ll find a set of like-minded people that will embrace you.
I would suggest, however, that the actual effect is precisely the opposite. The lack of family commitment and, by extension, knowing the families who live nearby, is not broadening at all. It’s polarizing. It narrows our experience down to a pittance.
In an essay on the family in his book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton makes this point with his usual clarity. He writes that family is the, “ultimate human institution,” and, “the man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world.”
This is because a large society exists only in order to form cliques. He argues that life is supposed to be like a fairy tale, full of the romance of heroes, villains, monsters, oddball characters, and fiery possibility. Life ought to present us with all sorts of things we do not like or expect. That’s the fun of it.
Chesterton says, “It is vain … to talk of uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings.” Remove the friction of family and neighbors and life becomes bland and boring.
As a father of six children, I find that Chesterton’s words ring true. Each of my children is unexpected, bringing their own set of delights, challenges, and unique personality traits for better or worse. Getting to know them in the narrowness of our little household of eight people to whom we are permanently bonded has been broadening for me. I’ve come to love a lot of things that my children have led me to. I’ve learned to accept certain temperaments and to give others space, respecting their differing opinions and finding value in what they value.
This outlook is carried with me when I leave home. My family has taught me to delight in meeting new people in our neighborhood, at work, and our parish. These are not the people, perhaps, I would’ve chosen to meet. I would’ve sought out people with more similar interests. But the limitation of meeting precisely the people God has placed in my life has become the framework of personal growth.
It all started with my family. For me, it has been the most intellectually and emotionally broadening institution in the world.
St. Joseph’s example
Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. It brings to mind how Joseph voluntarily narrowed his life for the sake of family. He accepted the imposition placed upon him by his wife to become the foster father of a son, a child not his own. He remained in his hometown and worked his job as a carpenter. Joseph seemed to be limited by his obligations, but his acceptance of the limitation of family was actually the key to his greatness. It opened up new horizons he’d never glimpsed before.
Today, we need families, local neighborhoods, and diverse parishes more than ever. Think of them like a narrow door, beyond which is endless adventure.