The topic of family is one that reverberates down through the corridors of history as one more stoutly defended, more resoundingly blamed, more universally touted as responsible - for whatever reason might be given to defend one's premises - than almost any other you might propose for the sake of argument. It seldom illuminates whatever the issue one might want to work toward presenting as worthy of consideration - which includes a myriad of developments stemming from this foundational one. In this respect, the issue of family is similar to that of education, to medical practice - even to economic policy - and is therefore undeniable in significance, but equally "unsolvable" as a serious problem in and for society.
How we think about issues like this may become crucial to our entire future on earth, in the sense that it is so foundational, so subject to political and religious manipulation that it impinges upon a great many of the governmental policies that affect our present and our future. In this respect it belongs with the cluster of "women's issues" like the "right to life" versus the "right to choose" - and with "racial issues" like "equal opportunity" and "affirmative action."
My question is whether it is possible to take the issue of family out of the arena of polarization and look at it more objectively than we have yet been able to do in any other sense than one of argumentation. Ever since the "women's liberation movement" days we have been focusing on such questions as "equal pay" and "glass ceilings" for women in business - without questioning the long-term effects of our short-term "reforms" on the lives of future generations which have grown up lacking, not just one parent at home, but two!
I doubt very much that being asked to take this question into consideration would have made any difference to women whose lives had been so badly truncated by the shibboleths concerning their "proper role" in society. But now that hundreds of thousands of women have decided to take for granted the belief that it's OK for mothers to have jobs and to leave the care of children to others throughout their childhoods, it may be time that we stopped "doing" and began "asking" whether this assumption has been a benefit or a curse - or, at best, a mixed blessing - to the ones who were its recipients.
My own impulse is to bring this question back into the whole arena of religion again - but not religion as defined by sects and congregations, by dogmas and moral codes based on ancient writings. I use the term "religion" here rather than spirituality, because the context I'm looking at is a borderline one which could be assigned to more than one category of designation - but "religion" seems to me the one that covers more of the issues involved in its consideration than any other. It brings the question out of the realm of the esoteric and into the arena where real people live their real lives.
The first thing that needs to happen, I believe, is to be able to take a good hard look at the results of our current attitudes and practices. What led me to begin speculating on this question came out of experiences with parenting, grand-parenting and now, great-grandparenting for so many years - and equally, with the experiences I've observed with the families of my friends and acquaintances, and with the children of families in our school (the Free School in Albany, New York) over the decades! As reliable "evidence", mine is "narrative" rather than "statistical." And that's OK. I don't claim any more status than that of narrator here.
We might start, actually, with the results in Israel of the government's early-on socialistic experiment of rearing children in communes under the care of designated caregivers, the parents being assigned to full-time work in the commune, and more or less forbidden to play substantive parental roles with their children. This policy had to be modified before long, as it became evident that many of these children were reacting badly to the loss of their parents - and gradually, the parents' roles in these communes were "allowed back in," as it were, although never on a full-time basis.
One of my own grown children's families are Jewish, and have spent time in Israel. Two of my grandkids in that family spent several weeks in a commune during one recent summer - and I got to hear their stories about other kids in their commune. To me, listening to my grandkids' descriptions of their campmates, these Israeli kids sounded pretty raunchy, pretty wild - and without much adult supervision. And, by extension, pretty disconnected to adult society - unless most Israel adults are as extreme in their behaviors and opinions as these kids - which I doubt.
So I turn back to our own emerging generation in the US. What indicators might I point to as evidence of how "we" are in this regard? Perhaps, if school is a mirror of society, we might look at kids' behavior in schools and then extrapolate back to families. I choose food as an indicator which traces its continuity directly back to family patterns. Schools dispense food in two forms - from cafeterias and from machines. The overwhelmingly common pattern in schools is for cafeterias to offer children choices in food - one following USDA guidelines for good nutrition, the other offering McDonald's-style food - hamburgers and fries. Overwhelmingly, children choose the latter option. The machines mainly offer children sugar-laden soft drinks, candy bars and Fritos or chips - at least, until quite recently.
What family patterns could possibly have led school administrators or school systems to adopt such an unhealthful regimen, which has produced such a national epidemic of obesity in the young? Evidently, society itself has mandated, and the schools have followed, an attitude of laissez-faire into which corporate America has been only too glad to jump - and reap golden rewards thereby! This pattern of obesity is by no means limited to children! Especially among the urban poor, the purchase of fast foods and prepared and packaged foods has become legion, so that rubbish collections outside tenanted buildings in downtown city localities can amount to as many as eight to ten garbage bags per collection, which their owners waddle out to the curb to set out once a week!
If this sounds scornful, my scorn is actually aimed at the cynical manufacturers of these outpourings of daily temptations to easy, addictive comfort - not to their victims! The elements of a culture one might point to as an explanation of such a dysfunctional pattern are legion. They include television viewing, both in bombarding viewers with luring advertisements touting consumption as a lifestyle - and in equally enticing programming for both adults and children - hundreds of sitcoms old and new on dozens of channels - garish, violent, irreverent, sometimes mocking, cartoon shows - and in general a vast dearth of viewing options offering less culturally damaging perspectives.
Wow. How could this have happened to an entire society? Did we just not notice the soul-destructive elements in our19th and early 20th centuries? Because, of course these same elements were there from the beginning. You can trace back their growth out of the grimness and inhumanity of our industrial system and its exploitation of immigrant populations - especially in our cities. These victims of our national cold-heartedness-cum-greed - a lethal combination of characterological flaws in our national character! - in turn victimized each other - particularly their own children - who in turn became inheritors of the victimizer position!
I believe these ingredients in what I am calling our national character may in its own turn be traced back to the early emphasis in our society on what might as well be called "Puritanism," although it was practiced equally by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups. You might call it Fundamentalism, in the sense that its advocates universally considered themselves to be chosen by the godhead as "his" anointed ones - and thereby both morally superior and unassailable in their Rightness! I use the past tense on this description, but I could equally well have used the present tense, since it is equally firmly in the saddle on our current world.
The pattern consisted of identifying godliness with material success, sexuality with sinfulness and ignorance with stupidity. Which, when you think about it, is a weird paradox: to be an overwhelmingly indulgent society in one dimension and an equally overwhelmingly fundamentalistic - morally repressive - one in another! For every national outpouring of heartfelt giving toward vistims of national disasters like hurricane Katrina and the tsunami of Sri Lanka and Indonesia there are the countervailing evidences of our callous cruelties toward the prisoners of Abu Graid and Guantanamo prisons - our indifferent exploitation of Mexican illegals in agriculture - the absurdly low rate of our national minimum hourly wage - our total neglect of decent medical care for the poor, the elderly, the insane - our willingness to tolerate the growing national shame of crowds of homeless people in our cities - our national failure to educate millions of our young - our failure to institute a national health care system. We are a strange and paradoxical people.
Alas, you might say with considerable accuracy, it is this pattern of extremes which is perpetuated primarily by the family! Each of us originates in a family setting, and often family patterns determine our own proclivities as much as five crucially formative years before we become subjected to influences from outside that family. But such a generalization is deceptive in the case of most families, when one factors in the current necessity for most families for both parents to work outside the home - and, most tellingly, perhaps, the presence of the ubiquitous TV as an "outside" factor in the home!
So before we condemn families as the origin of all our social ills, we need to examine the effects of both social and economic policies upon families! The bursting in upon our family lives of this phenomenon of television, beginning in the early 1950s, at first seemed only a somewhat more absorbing source of entertainment than radio and the movies combined - a way of moving the movie theater into the living room. Well, it's a lot more than that! Newborn babies were seldom if ever exposed to movies - even home movies - as they are to TV from the get-go. New parents, struggling with fretful, colicky babies or forced to bottle-feed their tiny infant in the middle of the night, know all too well what a blessing nighttime TV was - so welcome, indeed, that one occasionally found him or herself staring hypnotically at a test pattern, the regular programming having shut down for the night. I haven't watched TV for some nine or ten years now, but I'd be willing to bet there are now many channels to switch to that never shut down after midnight.
TV is a lot more of an intrusion upon our national culture than either or its predecessors. The mere fact that people are watching TV at home has led to the mass purchasing of mountains of sweet or alcoholic beverages and junk food, high in calories, fully- or partially-hydrogenated fats, artificial enhancers and addictive appetite-teasers.
The very fact of staring passively at a screen filled with wavy lines for hours at a time is both hypnotic in its effect and, in the case of very young children, a modifier of brain patterns on a neuronal basis, rendering children less proactive in struggling to integrate incoming data by an active effort to grasp and comprehend that data. And, of course, young children grow up to be full adults, who in turn have children of their own. I have grandchildren - and, in the last eight years, great-grandchildren, all born into a TV-soaked world! It takes a lot of will power to deny children access to TV, especially if their parents themselves were brought up in the era of the boobtube!
The effects of two generations, all of them brought up on TV, is beginning to bear its poisonous fruit! I saw a wonderful DVD recently entitled "The Tears of the Camel," about a small Mongolian community of camel and sheep rearers who unite around the solving of the problem of a wayward albino camel who refuses to mate in spite of all persuasions and trickeries. The village finally sends for a traditional musical healer from a fairly distant town in which he is a member of the faculty of a local music school which teaches traditional dances and the playing of traditional mucical instruments.
The youngest member of the family whose camel has refused to mate - a little boy who knows that merchants in that town sell ice cream and candy, begs to be allowed to accompany the older son to fetch this musical healer back to the village. Being a gentle and indulgent family, they finally allow him to go, give him some money to spend. In the course of spending the money his father has given him to spend. In the process of choosing his ice cream he spots a TV set on the back shelf which is showing cartoons, and becomes fixated on it.
The boys bring back the healer - who does indeed "cure" the camel through patiently playing his instrument for hours while the whole village watches and prays - and finally, the camel's eyes begin to brim over with tears, which roll down her hairy cheeks, following which she docilly allows herswelf to be approached and wooed by the male! - an amazing event in itself!
But the final scene as the camera slowly pulls back from this tiny, isolated village shows an electrifyingly appalling new addition to the family's yurt - a satellite dish! The young boy has finally gotten his wish - and has thereby inadvertently destroyed the lovely, humanly alive culture of his own small, uniquely beasutiful world! My heart sank into my boots, and my own tears joined those of the young she-camel!
Whom can we blame here? No one! The inventer of television? Of course not. The manufacturers or the chain store owners who sell the sets to the public? No, it's not their fault. Well, how about the families who buy them? No, even if that were a culpable act - which it isn't - blaming them wouldn't make sense. The few parents who DO eschew TV purchasing are then forced either to deny their children the right to visit their neighbors or live in areas where there are none - either neighbors or TVs, or both! Blaming victims is a terrible trasvesty - and we are all victims of the era!
This same rule of thumb applies equally to other grounds for blaming families for the ills of society. They are as much victims as they are perpetrators and perpetuators of society's anti-social characteristics. So what should we think about families? If they are not culpable as the sources of those ills, are they only society's victims? By no means.
Families are, as the title of this piece asserts, the hope of the generations. Humankind of capable of both great evil and equally great good! On very rare occasions, a child brought up outside the circle of the family is able to pull himself together and create a real life for himself and society as well - but it doesn't usually happen. Far more often, the early life of a child who has become a leader of some sort in his world - a leader for good, that is - turns out to have been as a loved member of a family - whether of a traditional family or not - who has been truly loved, respected and nurtured by some significant adult or adults, who has been recognized as a person of worth and unique selfhood!
So, to create an analogy with another form of life, the family could be said to function like a cocoon from which the larval form of the organism must emerge in order to become a butterfly. Its function transcends the level of conscious choice, because its integrity involves not only consciously-chosen alternatives but also openness to the roles of deep unconscious forces like temperament, instinctive reactions, emotions under stress, even physiological influences like the secretion of hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters, which can profoundly affect both thinking and behavior.
Thus, one might say that the family is the "place" where the past and the future meet in such a fundamentally crucial juxtaposition of elements as to be virtually determinative of a whole strand of future lives stretching out into the dim reaches of the future. If matters - both biologically and historically how a society ÄúholdsÄù the role of the family.
Held too tightly, its members tend to break the rules covertly in order to be able to feel less hemmed-in by such restrictions, as one might interpret many of the characteristics of traditionally-oriented Islamic and Israeli cultures, as well as some Äúfaith-basedÄù groups in the US, which in the end subverts the maintenance of the institution of marriage itself.
Held too loosely and the entire institution suffers, with most of the burden of its failure falling upon the children. And efforts by those who are shocked by such a breakdown to promote family membership in itself leads to further internal damage by the repression of freedom or by internal rebellion.
Thus, failure to understand the central role of the family in human life leads to damage to the entire society in which it is embedded. It is in this sense that that role should be understood as sacred, to be nurtured and protected but not regulated from without by externally-imposed rules and regulations.
It is my belief - and my hope - that as time goes by, we will make a start, even if at a very late date in the history of mankind, to unpack this conundrum of this societally delicate yet biologically strong and spiritually central institution, learn to hold its role in our survival as a race in a balance neither too tightly nor too loosely, to honor its integrity, yet not to the pitch of elevating it to the status of an inviolable shibboleth , to allow it to serve humankind, not the other way around. Only thus can the family assume its rightful place in the progression of the generations.