(last in a 6-part series on family)
Some years ago, Daniel Berrigan wrote a little book called Commandments for the Long Haul. One of his commandments offers an important counsel: Never travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long trip there are bound to be some dull stretches. So be easy on your fellow passengers! This is sound advice, especially for family life.
Living within a family is like running a marathon: You don’t do it like you do a sprint. You need advice about how to handle the long, dull stretches. With that in mind, allow me to offer a few commandments for living within a family, over the long haul:
1) Give up false messianism
Perfection is often the enemy of the good. Don’t let the your family’s faults blind you to its goodness. No family is perfect, particularly yours. This is called original sin. Make peace with it; else you will have no peace at all. Help your family to carry its pathologies, knowing that their helping you carry yours is the biggest grace within your own life. Forgive a lot because you will need to be forgiven a lot. Don’t be so upset that the conversations at your dinner table are rarely about anything besides gossip, sports, food, sit coms, and celebrities. Sacrament is contact nice beyond words. So too is the grace of family life. The deepest love is shown in fidelity, in just being there, in showing up at the dinner table. Your family will never look like the Holy Family, but that’s not what is required. Never look for the messiah outside of your own house nor for intimacy outside of your family, lest a cancerous restlessness beset you. In this world, all symphonies remain unfinished. You will never find the family of your romantic imagination. Accept your own. Find salvation there. Give up on false messianism.
2) Have a minister of defense
Your family is a kingdom under seige. It is naive to think that it can survive without clear boundaries that you are constantly defending. If you are not vigilant, you will be overrun. So have clear rules. Demand real things from each other; especially regular presence: Make sure everyone is home and at table for at least one meal a day. Make no exceptions. Pray together each and every day. Accept no accuses here. All arguments against this are rationalizations, enemies to family life. The game is won or lost at this level. Without regular, common, ritualized prayer and togetherness at table, a family dissipates. Have a minister of defense: Someone who rings the bell, challenges the absent, flushes out rationalization, exposes laziness, and is vigilant about boundaries.
3) Open your family to others
Have a large front door, a huge table, and a big, well-stocked refrigerator. Bring all the neighbours kids, the neighbours themselves, every kind of stranger, and especially the poor, to your table. Ply them with food, drink, humour, and talk of all kinds. Hospitality is an underrated thing. Take yourself and your family through others’ front doors as well. Don’t deprive your family of the therapy of a public life.
4) Never ever say: “I’m bored!”
To claim boredom is to publicly confess your own lack of depth. As Rilke says, to say that what is present to you is not rich is to admit that you are not a poet. If your family seems uninteresting to you then there is cause for painful self-examination: How interesting are you? Just how pompous are you anyway?
5) Let your family save your soul
To die within a family is to be assured of salvation. As Gabriel Marcel says: To say to another `I love you’ is to tell that person `You at least will never die!’ To stay in a family is to stay in a church. To eat at a family table is eat in a church. To die in a family is to die in a church. The laws of grace do not forbid that you never argue, fight, or grow jealous and resentful. They only demand that you never walk away from others in such a way so as to be without family. To be in a family is to touch the hem of Christ’s garment. To be touching that hem is to be forgiven your weaknesses. To deal with family prepares you for heaven. Small wonder it generally feels like purgatory. Accept this. It saves you from hell.
6) Keep a sense of humour
Not everything is what is looks like. A sense of humour clarifies this. Humour is the contemplative dimension within family life. Practice this ancient discipline for it makes for the grease that quiets the squeak in family life. A sense of humour deflates the tragic and the pompous. Read Irma Bombeck often. She is the great mystic on family life. Never despair. What seems so dire and hopeless to us is, in God’s eyes, often nothing more than a soiled diaper. Finally, when you stand before God, claim your status within a family. If you have stayed with them here, you will be them there.