04 May 2011

Family: Not a A Character Flaw, An Opportunity for Adventure

I am not writing about my mother or mothers even though Sunday is Mother’s Day, but I am writing about family—and how they form you. It’s likely not what you think. This week marks the end of two years of mentoring young (32-34 years old) professional women (more of a spiritual director). Over these two years I made a point of listening closely when they talked about their families: their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, half-siblings, step-siblings, step-parents. I listened to both what they said and how they approached the topic because the mentee’s attitude towards her family is a pretty accurate sketch of her general attitude towards life.
GK Chesterton has written a chapter on family in “Heretics” in which he suggests that the family–in its unvarnished, unsanitized version–is really the best thing for coming to grips with humanity in so many ways. Family is where we find real adventure. Chesterton asserts that the family is a ‘kingdom’ and, like real kingdoms, spend much of the time in ‘anarchy.’ He contends it’s a fantastic adventure, and I agree, but find many people think imperfect families is due to a character flaw. Chesterton’s analogy of family does not remotely resemble this one give by an American pastor: “It ought to be a place where love rules. [ok] It ought to be beautiful, bright, joyous…a place in which all are growing happier and better each day.” That sounds more like Disneyworld than Real World. Below are Chesterton’s assertions-I have liberally trimmed away the excess, and updated some of the language, but I think you’ll get his main point:
“The institution of the family is to be commended for the same reasons that the institution of the nation, or the institution of the city, are to be commended: They all force him to realize that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside. They all insist upon the fact that life, if it be a truly stimulating and fascinating life, is a thing which, of its nature, exists in spite of ourselves. The modern[s ]…have suggested… that the family is a bad institution, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. [Yet]…the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is…like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy.
It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.
Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this do wish to step into a narrower world. They are dismayed and terrified by the largeness and variety of the family. Sarah wishes to find a world wholly consisting of private theatricals; George wishes to think the Trocadero [Restaurant] a cosmos. …not that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual. But, [it] is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own.
The best way [to] test [ones] readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born. This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up…it is arbitrary…because it is there. [Here] the element of adventure begins to exist; for an adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us, a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose.
Falling in love has been often regarded as the supreme adventure, the supreme romantic accident. [Although] love does take us and transfigure and torture us. But in so far as we have certainly something to do with the matter, [we are] prepared to fall in love and. in some sense, jump into it; in so far as we do, to some extent, choose and, to some extent, even judge—in all this, falling in love is not truly romantic, is not truly adventurous at all. In this degree, the supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born.
There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands [bandits] from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale. This colour, as a wonderful narrative, ought to cling to the family and to our relation[ship] with it throughout life. …These are circumstances over which we have no control [and so] remain god-like…
People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature…The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, “to be continued in our next.”
If we have sufficient intellect, we can finish a philosophical deduction and be certain that we are finishing it right. With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery and be certain that we were finishing it right.
But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right. A story has behind it, not merely intellect which is partly mechanical, but will, which is in its essence, divine.
But in order that life should be a story it is necessary that a great part of it should be settled for us without our permission. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much [of the] hero that there would be no novel.
The thing which keeps life full of fiery possibilities is the existence of great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.”




  • GK Chesterton, Heretics