Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Family Reflections

The following article was first written by me in 2002. At the time we had one child and one on the way, and we had not yet lived outside of the United States. Today, with what is going on in the U.S. (which we watch from afar), I have been thinking a lot about the concepts I outlined here about the different types of family. So I am re-publishing it here in two parts, which will be followed by a connection to the United States and it's people.

Turning the Tables: Family on the Attack (part one)
My husband and I sat at the table discussing our over committed schedules, and the over committed lives of our friends. It seems that every family we know is “so busy” there is no time for the current worthy cause knocking on our calendars and certainly little time for just socializing. How do we as a family decide which projects are best suited to our talents and time? How do we judge whether or not current apostolic endeavors are the one’s we should be doing? We decided that what the Kennedy family needed was a mission statement--something that articulates our family goals and purpose. We could use such as statement as a gauge to tell us what projects or activities are good for the family and which are not so good.

Message in a Movie
As I lay in bed that night contemplating the future of the Kennedy family, I couldn’t help but think of a very depressing movie called Avalon that good friend had recommended. It is billed as a film about a family and the changes it endures over a generation. The movie begins post-war and pre-TV with a large extended family living close to each other and celebrating holidays. There is a repeated Thanksgiving scene that illustrates the demise of the family.

In the first Thanksgiving that you are shown the house is filled to the brim--adults at one huge table, kids at another. There are family squabbles, laughter, hugs, tears, conversation, and plenty of eating. The foibles of the different aunts and uncles are pointed out and laughed about. One uncle has a habit of being late and dinner is always postponed for his arrival. Then, one Thanksgiving, his brother opts not to wait for the delinquent one. An argument ensues, the offended brother storms out the door and the break up begins. By the end of the movie, Thanksgiving dinner is celebrated with one small family (parents, kids and a grandfather) in front of the TV. The scene is very depressing, especially in light of the family celebrations early in the movie.

Yet, these days this small gathering is average, or even very good, as far as family Thanksgivings go. What has happened to the large extended family with all the aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews? Where is the family these days?

Bombs Away: From "Happy Days" to "Friends"
It seems as if Al and Tipper Gore may be right (read their books for all the gory details), almost any gathering these days is called “family”—whether there are two daddies, no daddy, or whether you’re just simply a group of people eating at Olive Garden. In this modern family the individual is sacred and each person is responsible only to himself. If any member of the family is in need, well, there is a government program that will help them. In this way, the rest of the family is free to pursue their own needs and desires.

In today’s family you might have a TV and telephone (with a separate line) {can I add cell phones, computers, internet, etc?} in just about every bedroom; you might seldom see the family dinner table used; and family bonding means sharing a cell phone plan. This type of family has been called “atomistic” and it tends to be weak and easily broken up.

A stronger type of family is the Father Knows Best-Leave it to Beaver model. In the “domestic family”, the family is confined to one household with the father as the head. Relationships are strong between the immediate family, but are generally limited to the household. Relations with extended family are either non-existent or mostly social (i.e. seen on holidays). This is the family that plays soccer together on weekends, and perhaps enjoys a Saturday night video with popcorn. They eat together when possible, but family mealtime may not take precedence over many outside activities…except on holidays. In the domestic family, each individual’s independence is fostered by the family.

This Father Knows Best variety is the one many Christians idealize. Subsequently, we tend to interpret Scripture’s references to family in light of this domestic type. But is the “domestic family” the strongest family model? Not necessarily.

Men you can trust….? Mel Gibson, Joe Kennedy and Jacob
There is a type of family most common when a culture or society is at it’s peak. This kind of family is found in Brave Heart, in the legends of the Hatfields and McCoys, in the Kennedy Compound in Cape Cod, and even in the Bible. It is the family represented in the first Thanksgiving scene in the movie Avalon. Strong extended family relationships and a sort of inner governmental structure, as in a family council or influential patriarch/matriarch, characterize the “trustee family”.

In the trustee family marriage and children are sacred and essential to the structure of the family. The family is held together by the relationships between husband and wife and parent and child. The members of the family are caretakers of the family trust (it could be the family name, land, fortune, etc) and all work together for the sake of this trust. The individual is expected to sacrifice for the sake of the family. This is the family we find in the Scriptures—think of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

It is important to note that when the “trustee” family is strongest, the state is at it’s weakest or smallest. This is primarily because the family takes care of much of what the state would otherwise handle – care for the poor, widowed, orphaned, elderly, sick; marriage and divorce; even crime and punishment. Catholic social teaching has a similar principle called the “principle of subsidiarity”, which, simply put, means that the smallest possible body takes care of the problem. So, we start with the family, then the parish community, the town, the county, the state, etc. 

Part 2 of this article will follow in the next day or so. And then I want to make some further connections to the United States today. Stay tuned....

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, Carol! Looking forward to tomorrow's writing.