THE YEAR OF THE FAMILY
by Andrew Costello
1980 was the Year of the Family. Did it work?
1979 was the Year of the Child. Did it work?
1981 will be the Year of the Elderly. Will it work?
1982 will be the Year of the Handicapped? Will it work?
Unless you are a George Gallup or an Andrew Greeley and you have the advantage of a research institute you really cannot give an answer to the first two questions above. You can give opinions or feelings, but you cannot give a professional answer. And even if you were Gallup or Greeley you would have to present quite a few clarifications because the questions cover an awful lot of territory.
In this issue of YOU I would like to stress that each of us can look at our own territory. We can stay within our own boundaries, our own skins, and answer the questions for ourselves. Have I changed in any way with regards family life in 1980 -- the Year of the Family? In 1979 did I do anything different with regards children because it was the International Year of the Child? In 1981 and 1982 will I be different in my attitudes and dealings with the elderly and the handicapped?
In this issue of YOU I want to reflect with you on the family -- making this a sort of questionnaire or better, an examination of conscience or review of life. The hope is that by putting the spotlight on issues that we often keep in the dark, we will change when we see them in a new light. This question of family is central to all of us (whether single, married, widow, widower, separated, divorced, nun, priest, brother, etc.) All of us are connected to people. Our roots get tangled with each other's roots. We are all connected to families.
In this reflection I want to consider:
§ dad and mom (whether living or dead),
§ brothers an sisters (if any),
§ spouse (if married),
§ children (if any),
§ close friends and people I deal with regularly,
§ unraveling family knots
§ the real and the ideal,
§ conversion New Testament style.
BEGINNING: ADAM AND EVE
When God created Adam he quickly created Eve and they quickly created Cain and Abel and the Bible quickly started using the word “begat” more and more and more.
It is not good for any of us to be alone. We need family. We need community. We need friends. Both Robinson Crusoe and Martin Buber tell us that every I needs a Thou. And so in 1980 we are urged by church and society to look at our primary need -- our primary relationship -- our family. Each of us has a dad and mom. (I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “If your parents didn't have any children, chances are you won't have any either.”
What is the quality of my family life? Is the air at home good to breathe? On a scale of 1 to 10 how would I rate my family? Convent as family? Rectory as family? Parish as family? Is it a Garden of Paradise or are we banished outside the gates of happiness where we spend our days blaming and killing each other just as Adam blamed Eve and Cain killed Adam?
THIS IS YOUR LIFE
Get 3 chairs. Sit in one of them. Now play the old T.V. game, “This Is Your Life.” It can be a great way to meditate. Picture God in one chair and then one by one picture in the third chair the different people in your life.
Start with dad. What is he like? Do you care for him? How many times did the two of you ever sit down like this and have a good talk together? If you have brothers and sisters, who was his favorite? (Bring that question up this Thanksgiving or Christmas or whenever you get together. It can be a real eye opener or can of worms.) How do the answers to that question feel? If your dad is dead, do you believe he is with God? In the film, “The Walls Come Tumbling Down” -- an Insight film put out by the Paulist Fathers, Max (played by Jack Albertson) is completely surprised when God (played by Martin Sheen) tells him that his dad is with Him in heaven. “Oh, so he made it.”
Be quiet and take a real long look at your dad. What is it like to be him? Listen: he'll tell you his story. If he is still living, please God you'll take the next opportunity when the two of you are alone to get some answers to these questions.
Next invite your mom into that chair your dad was in. Ask her the same questions. How do you relate to her? Are there any questions she wants to ask you? Any problems? Resentments? Thanks? If you had to list 5 likes and 5 dislikes what would they be regards mom? If she had to do the same about you, what would they be? A priest friend of mine told me that he had to fly home for his mother's funeral. Instead of going to the funeral parlor right away, he went first to a quiet chapel to say Mass for his mom. In the penitential rite of the liturgy he had the deepest conversation he ever had with his mom in his life. Unfinished business was taken care of and he walked to the funeral parlor filled with inner peace. If we find a quiet place and we know how to use our imagination to picture people sitting with us, we can have important conversations with both the living and the dead.
Then after dad and mom put one by one the important people in your life in that third chair: husband, wife, kids, friends, brothers, sisters, people you life with or work with. Obviously this exercise will take a lot of time and emotional energy. However it can help you get in touch face to face with a lot of unresolved conflicts and unfinished business that you perhaps have been avoiding for years.
All of us are constantly carrying on parts of hundreds and hundreds of conversations from the past within our head. This exercise of the 3 chairs gets us to be like telephone operators connecting us up with one person at a time.
But be careful. This is “touchy” stuff because we obviously hold onto conflicts and negative stuff from the past that never were settled. Instead of good memories, we tend to remember when we were not given a fair shake by parents, brothers, sisters, spouse, friends, etc. That's the bad news. The good news is that God is in that second chair watching and listening to everything that is going on. By prayer, by bringing God into our story, the story can change. God's presence and God's care for each of us in the two other chairs can bring about a reconciliation -- the lack of which might be draining us of all kinds of energy that could be used to help the people in our life.
What we are talking about is conversion -- a major change in our way of seeing and living. We're talking about root changes. We're talking about going with God down into our basement and looking at the very foundation stones of our life. (Cf. Matthew 7: 24 - 27)
Dig into any person's life and you'll always come to family -- mom, dad, brothers, sisters, husband, wife, children. I found out by listening to other people that my relationship to my dad and my brother were crucial for the way I act. And I know that if I continue to reflect and pray about my family relationships I'll discover more and more how my mom and my two sisters effect my life.
Central to Christianity then is this message of conversion and change. Central to the Year of the Family is improvement of family life. Central to the message of this issue of YOU is that I change with regards my attitudes and dealings within my family.
EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE
1) Is there anybody in my family I am avoiding or refusing to forgive? Is a reconciliation possible?
2) Do I ever pray with my family? Read Scripture together? Rosary? Quiet prayer time together? Shared prayer together?
3) Is God the center of our family life -- or is it the T.V. or has the center dropped out of our family and we're all going our own separate ways?
4) Do we really believe that marriage and family is a sacrament -- an outward sign instituted by Jesus Christ to give grace to each other and to all the people who walk into our home and our life? When people meet us or visit our home (convent, rectory, etc.,) do they walk away lifted in spirit or was it a wrong move on their part?
5) How does money effect our lives -- our time together -- the quality of our lives?
6) Do we speak to each other with words other than sports, weather, clothes, school, food, and the world out there?
7) Do we really listen to each other -- not just to the words -- but to the silence, the body language, the eyes, the hands, the lumps in the throat? Do we plan together? Do we play cards or games together? Do we go out, for example, to a dinner or a wedding or a picnic without discussing possible problems that came up the last time we went out together?
8) Do we say to each other inwardly, but never outwardly, ideas like, “You can't be lonely,” or “You can't feel that way,” or “You can't think that way,” or “You can't be that way,” or “You can't say that”?
9) Do we hold onto mistakes, comments, sins, problems that another member of the family made 15 years ago?
10) Do we make allowances for growth, change, and development? Do we realize that we all grow differently and at different speeds?
11) With regards my family, if I had one year to live I would .... If I had one month, one week, one day to live, I would ....
UNRAVELING THE KNOTS
Obviously family life is complicated. So maybe that's why we need a whole year to reflect upon it. It takes a long time to unravel its knots, spread out its different threads, and figure out just what pattern we're really after.
A few years ago I had a special opportunity that showed me how complicated a problem can be. It showed how unaware we all can be and why people and families and groups can tie themselves in knots. I attended a week long workshop on the topic of “Group Development Skills.” It was run by an organization called MATC (Mid-Atlantic Training Committee, Inc. Suite 325, 1000 Massachusetts Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20005). This organization runs many different kinds of programs, for example, “Experiential Education Design Skills”, “Organization Development Training Program”, etc.
Well after giving us various theories about ways groups behave, we broke up into small groups so that we could experience first hand what the workshop leaders had presented. We were given time to try to put the theory into practice. I was part of a small group of 7 who were given the following imaginary situation. We were 7 friends who had $200,000 and our goal was to build a vacation house available to all of us. We were given a certain amount of time to work out what kind of a house we wanted, where to locate it, and how it could be available to all 7 of us and our families. What was interesting was that we had 3 of the workshop leaders sitting outside our circle observing and taking notes on how each of us functioned in a small group.
In the beginning the 7 of us were rather polite and organized -- artificially bringing in and practicing the techniques that had been presented to help small groups work better. However as soon as we got going into our discussion we forgot the observers looking over our shoulders and most of what they had taught us. The situation became real -- people dealing with people -- the stuff of everyday life.
Late in the afternoon our group hit a snag. Rita, one of our group, started asking for a complete change in plans. She wanted us to start all over again. Things we had decided on much earlier she wanted eliminated. We were almost finished our project and here she wanted to go backwards. We disagreed with her. What had started out as an imaginary game to teach us about small groups had become a real life situation. We got angry with her and told her that she was too late. “Well, if that's the case,” she countered, “I want my money back.” Frustration and confusion increased. I sat there saying to myself. “What's wrong with this woman? Weird! Well, I guess I'll never understand woman.”
We ran out of time and never finished our task. The next day the 7 of us sat down with our 3 observers and they asked us, “What happened?” We didn't know. They suggested that we use a process often used in MATC programs. It's called, “E.I.A.G.: A Theory of Learning.” Each letter stands for a step. It's an excellent 4 step process for unraveling knots.
“E” stands for an EXPERIENCE. Our experience was that of Rita suddenly changing her plans. As a result we had to stop what we were doing and try to deal with her, and as a result, our goal of making a common decision of using $200,000 to build a vacation house all 7 of us could be happy with, was never completed.
“I” stands for Identify. This second step is to be more specific and identify a part of the experience that needs to be looked at more clearly. We decided to look at Rita's sudden change of behavior when she started saying things like, “I want a different kind of a house,” or “I want to build in a different place” or “I want my money back.”
“A” stands for ANALYSIS. This is the hardest step in the “E.I.A.G” process. It's the WHY question. Why did Rita change her plans? Why did she want her money back?” Why did she start to get obnoxious? When we started into this step we began to get a bit nervous, because we were getting into the area of motivation and judging others. Maybe she had psychological problems and often did things like this. An observer sensing our fear stepped in and said, “Ok, we have an hour till lunch. So let's analyze what happened.” I was glad he stepped in because none of us, including Rita, could figure out just WHY she did what she did. The observer asked Rita if she had gone to the bathroom yesterday. She blushed and said, “Of course.” “When?” “How should I know?” “Well,” asked the observer, “did you go to the bathroom during the afternoon session?” We all were quiet for a moment and Rita finally said, “Yes.”
Then the observer asked us, “Did anybody see Rita get up and go to the bathroom yesterday afternoon?” “No.” “Well,” the observer said, “to save time, it was after Rita went to the bathroom that she started asking for a change in plans.”
Rita said, “Well, when I went to the bathroom someone was in there and it was the only bathroom on this floor. Whoever was in there got me mad till she finally came out.” “Well, is that the reason why you got mad at the group?” Silence. “I don't know.”
Then the observer asked us, “When did you make the decision that the vacation was going to be in Maryland? Was it before or after Rita went to the bathroom?”
All of a sudden Rita slapped her leg and yelled, “It happened when I was in the bathroom.” There it was: the crux of our problem. Suddenly we realized that we had made a key decision and Rita was not in on it. We didn't even notice it had happened. She didn't know it had happened -- consciously. All she knew was that something had changed while she was gone and we didn't let her in on it.
The day before people had gone in and out of the group several times for coffee or to go to the bathroom, but as far as we knew, Rita was the only one left out of a major decision. It all happened so fast. We were tired. We were near the end of the process. When she came back she couldn't figure out what had happened while she was gone. So Rita did the best thing she could think of to stop whatever was happening. When we ignored her, she “threw sand in the engine.” She said she wanted a different kind of vacation house. When that didn't work, she wanted her money back. That worked. It stopped us and we never did finalize our putting down on paper all our plans to build a $200,000 vacation house that all 7 of us could use.
“G” stands for GENERALIZE. This is the last step in the “E.I.A.G.” process. An observer asked us when else did this happen? The answers were man: a) When a husband comes home from work and finds out at supper that his wife made plans that Monday morning for them to play cards that evening at 9:00 -- forgetting all about Howard Cosell and Monday Night Football. b) When teenagers have a Saturday afternoon all planned and all of a sudden they find out Saturday morning that dad had it planned all week that they had to go to grandma's at 1:00 that afternoon. c) In churches when parish councils and committees find out that they were ignored in decisions about things they were supposed to be consulted on.
That night when I had some time to think about what had happened to Rita and our group, I realized that here was the reason why a lot of things in my dealings with others had gone wrong. I realized here was the reason why the learnings of so many programs and workshops never go beyond the day they end. (Somebody else set up the agenda and decided that this was what the participants needed.) Here was the reason why the decrees of Vatican II had so much trouble being implemented. The decisions were made while we were in another room. And if people think they should be part of the decision making process they might “throw sand in the engine” because they were not informed about what was happening. Here was a process -- “E.I.A.G.” -- that could help families to try to figure out “what happened” when they find themselves all tied up in knots.
THE REAL AND THE IDEAL
The ideal thing to do then is that every group and every family in a parish (including convent, rectory, school, etc.) make time and have a method so that people could unravel the knots they find themselves in. It would be ideal if the whole church could somehow be brought together for its discussions and decisions.
Obviously in practice a lot of things we would love to do are impossible. Take families. Part time jobs, cheer leader practice, sudden accidents, cake sales, track meets, and a hundred other everyday events prevent even the closest of families to do the things they would love to do together. How could we expect more from the whole church or even a whole parish?
And this puts us right in the middle of one of the central issues of life: The Real Vs. The Ideal. And even this problem has all kinds of knots of its own that need to be unraveled. Besides needing to go to the bathroom and all those other things mentioned in the last paragraph, a lot of other things prevent the ideal from being reached -- money, differences in personality, style, models, sin, -- to name just a few.
Historians like Thomas S. Kuhn and theologians like Avery Dulles have pointed out the obvious -- but often unnoticed fact -- that people have different models in mind for what a situation should be like. Parents with a station wagon full of kids know this when it comes time to pick between McDonalds or Burger King. They know it when it comes time to turn their one TV on or where the different members would like to go for a vacation. Often a wife has one ideal for how kids should be raised and a husband quite another and their kids a third, forth and fifth ideal. As Avery Dulles has clearly pointed out, people in the church have different models on how they want their church to be. Some do and some do not want to be part of the discussion and the decision making process. They are perfectly content to be told what to do.
Besides models and many other issues, SIN also gets in the way of the ideal being reached. Even if Rita didn't go to the bathroom when we made a key decision without her, she or anyone of us could have “thrown sand in the engine” of progress because of jealousy, or pride, or anger -- just to name some of the sinful patterns that can flow through families and groups in their power struggles.
In order to survive we have to learn how to live in the real world of weakness and sin and personality differences. Some people have a lot of trouble accepting this. They find it hard to deal with ambiguity. They want the ideal so badly that the real crushes them. The wife wants the ideal husband and every time she sees “Mr. Wonderful” down the street playing frisbee or football with his kids or putting out the garbage, she gets angry with her pot bellied husband down the cellar working with his electric trains. Or nuns get in their own way when the convent they are stationed in is not the ideal and they have a model of a convent they wished existed somewhere in mind. Priests give bad sermons. Fathers get drunk. Mothers scream at the wrong kid. People forget they are in the shower and use up all the hot water. Teenagers scratch records. Kids spill spaghetti. Jam always gets into the peanut butter jar. People commit adultery. People have to go to the bathroom and we make decisions while they are there and we don't even know we did it.
We're against sin -- but we have to learn to live with it. It's like riding the New York Subway. If you want to use it to get to work, you have to learn to live with the crush of people -- some of whom never seem to have watched those soap and deodorant ads on T.V. It's the same way if we want to ride this planet. We're all sinners. The sheep are mixed in with the goats, the weeds are mixed in with the wheat, and we're not going to be separated till the ride is over.
Look at Jesus. He ate with sinners. He lived with Peter and Judas. And if we don't accept this reality -- this fact that all of us are sinners -- we're in for an awful lot of inner frustration. We're in for a very unhappy ride.
As usual the secret is to start with ourselves. This is Jesus' New Testament message (Matthew 7:3-5; 23:25-28). In reality each of us has wheat and weeds, sheep and goats, running around inside ourselves. The plot isn't that some of us are good and the others are bad. That was the Pharisees' model of how things were. All of us contain all of us. We're both the good guy and the bad guy, the Pharisee and the Publican. Some days we play the villain and some days we play the Good Samaritan. And if we cannot live with the fact that we sin, then we might as well be like Judas and go out and commit suicide. We make mistakes. We sin. Obviously we don't know enough about Judas. It's too late to do an “E.I.A.G.” on him. Yet it seems to me that he's the model of the person who gets the ideal in the way of the real. His statue should be taken down and perhaps Peter's put in its place.
This does not mean that we give up striving for the ideal family life. No, but it means that just as we have to learn to live with ourselves and our own weaknesses, we must learn to live with others and their strengths and weaknesses.
And what is the ideal family? The ideal convent? The ideal rectory? The ideal parish? We find it in the New Testament vision of Jesus. We see it in practice in the picture of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. We see that the ideal, the dream of Jesus, is that our family is made up of all those who hear the word of God and act upon it (Luke 8:21). We find out from Paul that “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with him. There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male of female. All are one in Christ” (Galatians 3: 27-28)
And in Paul's letter to the Ephesians -- where we find various valuable comments about family life --- we have an ideal way to improve family life. Paul uses the example of a soldier getting dressed for battle. He has to PUT ON various pieces of equipment. Paul compares putting on a belt to putting on truth, putting on the breastplate to putting on justice, putting on footgear to propagating the gospel of peace. (Cf. Ephesians 6:10-17.) Well, each day, each of us puts on clothes, but they are not part of us. The same can be said of practicing various virtues or ideals that might not be natural to us. Being patient, understanding, forgiving, helping one another, etc., need to be practiced at first. We have to PUT ON being patient -- actually not being ourselves if we tend to be rather impatient with certain people. But through practice -- as all the old spiritual writers tell us -- patience, forgiveness, kindness, trust, not being jealous, unselfishness, -- and all the other virtues needed for an ideal family life can become second nature to us. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
1980 was the Year of the Family. Did it work? In general we can report that in many parishes there were sermons, workshops, seminars on family. These made people more aware of the need for conversion. We can also report that there has been an improved awareness of the cries, the pains, the needs, the problems of families, of those preparing for marriage, for those married, for the separated, those divorced, the gay, the alienated, the forgotten, etc. We can report that the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome focused in on the family. The ideal was not achieved in this Year of the Family, but there are real signs of small improvements.
But as the current cliche goes: “Let's get to the bottom line.” We are the answer to the question whether 1980 -- the Year of the Family -- worked. If you answer “Yes, I improved,” then this year, this Christmas, your family is getting the best gift possible -- a better YOU.