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Ties That Bind

March 17, 2018 | (1,000 words)

I’ve been thinking about my wife’s dead parents a lot lately, almost as much as my own. After some thirty-six years in relationship, persistent annoyance interspersed with transcendent joy, a certain calming of the impulses has descended on our marriage, like a gentle snowfall. Finally one is able to consider the covenantal spouse as not just friendly compliment or fiery opposition. A quieting of all desires, flesh and spirit, yields a vision of one’s wife as a separate, independent human being. What a revelation.

This particular individual is worthy of consideration and respect simply by virtue of being human, of course, as is every person. But the habits and manners she exhibits in such close proximity are a wordless declaration of character, which renders the conclusion all the more indisputable. Needless to say, such habits and manners are the legacy of the man and woman who raised her. So coming at last to appreciate one’s spouse for her innate qualities can’t help but extend to an appreciation of the mother and father who brought her into this world, and showed her how to be.

Prior to this pivot, I was part of a generation (b. 1954) known for making a big fuss about finding fault with one’s parental units. Growing up we were all amateur psychologists, and our poor defenseless moms and dads were the unwitting patient, forced to suffer a grindingly harsh assessment of their foibles and frailties. Naturally we sought to distance ourselves from these embarrassing philistines, whose outdated modes of thought were weighing us down and holding us back, as quickly as circumstances would allow.

… living in the moment, with spontaneity as our guiding light.

The outsider, the anti-hero, and the rebel formed our primary cultural touchstone back then, and remain so for the popular culture of today. But this fascination with overturning the established order was rooted in adolescence, and still is. Young adulthood has much to recommend it: energy, drive, and passion. But there is also much of value waiting in mature adulthood – and dare we say it – old age: experience, perspective, and wisdom.

The popular culture, meanwhile, has made it abundantly clear it has no interest in bringing the latter qualities to bear on matters of import. Instead we strive to “live in the moment,” with spontaneity being our guiding light.

Our newly transient lifestyles mean we are no longer defined by where we come from; we get to choose who we will be, and what we will do. This transience has largely liberated us from family relations, and we imagine ourselves thereby set free from “homegrown prejudice, petty grievances, and vicious cruelty,“ to quote Ms. Jennifer Szalai, the staff book critic for The New York Times.

This is the underlying appeal of severing ties: a way out for those of us who do not wish to conform to the demands of moribund parents or traditional family life. And our numbers are legion. But where or what do we think we are escaping to? A parallel universe inhabited with an enlightened species magically unencumbered with such backward tendencies?

The purpose of life, one might say, is to gradually achieve a more complete understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. That process usually extends to a growing understanding of those around us. The family we are born into, and the family we form in adulthood, are certainly not the only places to develop such understanding. But they often constitute the most infallible of teaching mechanisms.

…customs and traditions as a life-giving fountain.

There can be seemingly insurmountable obstacles within certain family groupings, but problematic behaviors are part of the human condition and are found in every strata of the population. There is no escape from such behaviors, even among so-called enlightened cohorts.

Our family and clan and tribe do not just restrict us in the way we think and act, as the modern conceit would have you believe. The customs and traditions embodied and communicated by one’s family can also be – are meant to be – a life-giving fountain.

The ambitious notion that we are expected to “do better than our parents” also plays into the larger dynamic of familial disdain, in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

There is nothing wrong with material comfort, or with the quest for improved material well-being. But isn’t it obvious by now that economic drivers have forced several decades’ worth of stressful financial decisions that invariably impact family relations in a negative way?

For example, skyping with the grandkids is better than nothing. But it is not the same as holding them in your arms or having them sit on your lap, even if our sons and daughters are doing marvelously well in their respective careers. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, are forced to move away in search of gainful employment.

…skyping with the grandkids is better than nothing.

In the broadest sense, the centuries-old imperative for “maximum personal freedom” and “individual emancipation” – which today has reached its apogee with a new, much-heralded emphasis on “transience” as being a positive, rather than a negative development – has come at the expense of knowing and appreciating those who start out being the closest to us in the whole wide world.

This is a cultural issue that has both philosophical and economic roots. The less-well-understood latter has helped to institutionalize the widely-celebrated former.

Our economic model has “reduced rich cultures to consumer products.” Our society-wide repudiation of the ties that bind, in favor of doing our own thing and going our own way, has “left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an anti-culture from which many genuine human goods have fled.”

Those last two quoted phrases come to us courtesy of Mr. Ross Douthat, who also writes for The New York Times, and sum up our current, unfortunate situation rather nicely.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
March 17, 2018

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