Every May my wife’s family gathers. They are a diverse group. The ages span from the 20s into the 90s, educations from high school to doctoral. They don’t read the same books, watch the same movies, or subscribe to the same magazines (with the possible exception of Down East). And their ideas about life differ. Nonetheless, they gather to spend the day together, emailing and phoning throughout the year.
Their ancestor, Isaac, homesteaded land in Maine in 1821. No longer farmed, it’s the family vacation spot. So this disparate group of individuals has no choice but to communicate, cooperate, compromise, get along, and work together. That is, they have no choice but to be the family they already are.
My extended family rarely communicates. We are spread up and down the East Coast and have little common ground beyond our common genes. I suspect that’s true of most extended families.
My impression is that even when pro-family advocates talk about “the family,” they typically husband, wife, and children. Grandparents form a second tier and then there are the uncles, aunts and cousins — if you’re into that sort of thing, and not everyone is.
Family has become, along with almost everything else in life, something we feel free to choose.
It’s not surprising. Families are flung across the map and connecting takes effort. Plus the longer we put off connecting, the fewer reasons there are to connect.
So we focus on the nuclear family beginning with husband and wife who, of course, come together by choice with or without family knowledge, advice or approval. Unfortunately, most also feel free to choose divorce if things don’t go as planned.
Children have become a choice even for Christians. Thanks to the widespread acceptance of contraceptives, we have them when we choose and if we choose. Then they grow up and, at some point, choose their own paths — often far from mom, dad, siblings and other relatives.
Without a family business, farm or vacation property, there’s no reason save the ties of blood to be in relationship with each other and, let’s face it, blood these days isn’t as thick as it used to be. All that’s left is the occasional baptism, wedding or funeral, assuming they choose to invite you and you choose to attend.
G K. Chesterton, I believe, said that if you want to learn to love, don’t join a club. Any club you choose has been chosen by people just like you and are, as a result, relatively easy to love. Instead walk down a random street, knock on a random door, go inside, and live with the random people who are already there. That will teach you to love. And, he added, it’s just what happened to us when we were born.
Yet we, in a sense, have turned family into a club in the name of personal freedom and individual choice. If we believe the secular notion that "love makes a family" rather than blood, marriage or adoption, it’s small wonder that we are, for example, losing the battle over redefining marriage. Who are we to deny people their choices?
Tomorrow is July 4th, Independence Day, the day we celebrate our American heritage of freedom as well we should. But over the past 237 years the meaning of freedom has morphed. We equate freedom with the ability to choose what we want, when we want it, where we want it, how we want it, and with whom we want it. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy eloquently (and foolishly) put it, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
But true liberty is not the freedom to make it up as we go along. True liberty is the freedom to choose ways of living that are genuinely human. As Pope John Paul II eloquently (and wisely) put it, “True freedom is not advanced in the permissive society, which confuses freedom with license to do anything whatever and which in the name of freedom proclaims a kind of general amorality. It is a caricature of freedom to claim that people are free to organize their lives with no reference to moral values, and to say that society does not have to ensure the protection and advancement of ethical values.”
Part of living in ways that are genuinely human is to live in family. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, nephews and cousins — yea, even unto the fourth cousins and beyond — matter. They fill out our lives, ground our identities and teach us to love.
If you need a piece of real estate to make it happen, buy one. But I suspect that a little resolve and a telephone can get us started.
Publication date: July 3, 2013