Despite widespread media coverage in the last decade of the supposed breakup of the family, we are discovering now what we always expected to be true: that the family unit is still very healthy, and still very much the centerpiece of our society.
In the 1970’s the family faced serious and debilitating problems that almost spelled the end of traditional family life — or at least so we were led to believe. The “me” generation, by rejecting religious and moral values, experienced a fragmentation of family life that led naturally to a growing sense of disorientation and estrangement, and finally to increases in separations and mental illness.
But currently in America there is a strong undercurrent of optimism about the future of the family. There appears to be a recognition that the ideals of family life — namely, love, compassion, respect, discipline and sacrifice — are ideals worth sustaining.
A glance back at history suggests the family has changed. In an agrarian society, when family members enjoyed little mobility, children remained on the farm, with everyone pitching in to survive. Relatives lived close by, family ties remained strong, and the extended family flourished. Staying close to home was not only expected, it was essential to sustain life.
In the industrial era, with the cities beckoning with the promise of a better life, children abandoned the homestead in droves to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Similarly, in our current technological-computerized society, the modern family is frequently expected to pack up, sever ties, and move around the country at the whim of corporate head-quarters.
Today, I sense we are witnessing a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of the family and its role in a healthy nation. I sense a national yearning to return to the strengths of the traditional family, to move away from the selfish “I want” mentality to that sense of shared optimism that derives from family members who pull together toward closeness and affection.
But to help redirect our national energies toward a healthier family unit, I would call on government to assume a leadership role by instituting comprehensive tax incentives for the family. The new IRA accounts and the IRS deductions for dependents and mortgage interest are a beginning, but more could be done. It is clearly in the national interest to encourage strong, stable families.
Next, since the healthy family produces stable employees, corporations must be willing to invest in the family’s well-being. This means creating a work atmosphere that ensures the individual a sense of his or her own self worth. And furthermore, corporations need to recognize that substantial salary increases do not offset the psychic shock and emotional trauma of uprooting a family. When this has to be done, as much advance notice as possible should be given to the family.
Jean-Paul Sartre says we are born alone, and we die alone. I would amend that by saying we are born into our families, and we should be allowed to die with our families — and in between these two great human dramas we are entitled to physical, emotional and spiritual sustenance from our families. Various substitutes for family support systems have been proposed over the centuries but none of them have worked.
For many families, torn by the tensions of the last decades, there is the need to be re-educated to the values that accrue from strong family ties. Where it was fashionable for youngsters to move out of the house in their late teen years, now is the time to reverse that trend. Stable societies keep their children home until marriage or until employment has taken them to another city. It’s all too easy to wave goodbye to a growing child, hoping he will learn responsibility on his own. And it is all too easy to shut off the grandparents in rest homes where — according to our rationalizations — they will be better cared for.
In other words, I am speaking of certain transcendent values that we must all pay homage to: those of love, understanding and compassion. Each of us has the responsibility to support the quality of the lives of the other members of the family. For example, how frequently do we look at family members and ask ourselves if there is some way we could support them in their endeavors? How often do we take the time to really see others? To discover what they need from us? Professional success demands a lot of time, but we must give the four letter word — TIME — to our family relationships if they are to be meaningful.
And closeness is important. If anything, our impersonal, mechanistic world underscores the absolute necessity for human contact from people who count in our lives. And it all begins in our hearts. We must learn to move beyond the confines of ourselves to reach out to others — so that people close to us understand how important they are to us, how they are accepted for themselves and loved completely.
If anything, we must stop ridiculing and disparaging the family. The slick magazines, the TV soaps — all attack the family by portraying the fast life as the life worth emulating. What a sad waste. Common sense tells us that though such lives may glitter for a moment, they are filled with hollowness, insecurities and unrelieved tensions.
In the last analysis, one of life’s constants is the joy that comes from spending time with people we love. And a corollary is this: when we work hard at building something, then we can sit back and look with pleasure on what we have built. The same holds for the family. We are all builders, constructing a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. I cannot think of a more worthwhile or satisfying task.