Concerned about the state of the American family? There is ample reason given us for such concern. For one thing, the divorce rate is a staggeringly high 50%. And then there is the uncertainty of roles within families. We wonder just what being a father, a mother, or a child is supposed to entail. Things are changing, and maybe not for the better, we hear.
But honestly, we feel a lot more positive than that about American families. We can’t claim to know a particularly large or representative cross section of all American families, but we are heartened by what we see. We regularly meet couples preparing for marriage, and their commitment to one another and their enthusiasm for the institution is no less strong than it was among couples we counseled in years past. Despite its recent bad press, entering marriage and forming a family is still a very appealing option. Why do you suppose that is? Why take the risk of suffering a divorce, of exposing oneself to possible heartache and disillusionment, impermanence and uncertainty?
We have come to suspect that the reason people still marry, and with enthusiasm, is that while there is risk of failure, there is also clearly the possibility of finding a tremendous reward. And what is the reward? Those who are marrying describe it this way to us. They want to give themselves wholeheartedly to someone else out of love, to help their love grow. Then they want to bring children into the world, so that the love now shared as a couple can be expanded even further. It is all about experimenting with love to see it increase. It’s almost as if family life is seen as a little love laboratory, and whatever the components, processes, and variables employed, the anticipated outcome is always the expansion of love. Now, who could argue with that for a goal?
A friend recently shared with us a story told by Eknath Easwaran about St. Francis of Assisi, who though he was a monk, also apparently advocated the family as the finest laboratory for love. One day, the story goes, three young men approached St. Francis, asking him to bless them in their intention to become hermits for God’s sake. Each wanted to live in his own cave, solitary and self-contained, alone with his thoughts and prayers before God. But St. Francis offered a different directive. While they might indeed become hermits, they were not to live alone, but to live together in a single hut. One of them should take the role of father, the second the role of mother, and the third should be their child. Then, every few months they were to exchange roles.
What an experiment in love that would be. St. Francis challenges even those who are seeking solitude to consider what they may learn from family relationships of deep commitment. What rough edges can be sanded away, what self-centeredness can be redirected, what pride of position can be humbled when people are bound together as family? Love surely grows within and between people who enter into such relationships. And, as St. Francis makes clear, we can construct those relationships in many ways and places.
Are you part of a family that functions as a laboratory of love? If not, maybe there’s someone nearby who needs your maternal or paternal efforts. Or maybe there’s someone who would love to parent you or be your brother or sister. Don’t let the supreme gift of family life – the love it engenders – pass you by.