President's Column - May 2005

The Promises and Perils of Family
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

As a social institution, family matters for the individual as well as the nation. It is frightening to realize that as the family goes, so goes the civilization. We really need to take stock and find out where our families are heading.

Family is a loaded word, capable of triggering complex and strong emotions. What kind of image comes to your mind, when you think about family? Is it a postcard perfect home filled with love and laughter? Or is it a heart-breaking place full of pain, despair and chaos? Perhaps, for many people, it is simply the banality of family life - the endless rounds of dirty dishes and dirty laundries.

Whatever our personal experiences, it is difficult to escape from our family legacy. Our parents have bestowed on us not only a unique pool of genes, but also a mixed bag of blessings and curses. I am forever my father's son, but I am also father of my own two sons. The timeless river runs through the generations, reminding us of the long provenance of our virtues and sins. The long arms of our ancestors have a way of messing up our lives! At the same time, they have also deposited merits in our names to help us through difficulty times. The challenge we face is how to build upon our family history and create our own identity.

My family history in a glimpse

It is sobering, even painful, to think about my own family history. The saga of surviving wars and revolutions is intertwined with the larger drama of contemporary Chinese history. The family has now been scattered around the globe as a result of the tumultuous events beyond their control. Even without the practice of ancestor worship, the spirits of my ancestors still speak to me. For example, I have learned resilience from my father's many heroic comebacks. He was able to start all over again at the age of 75 and created a successful business -- he did it for his children.

My mother endured years of unspeakable pain just to keep the family together in spite of my father's infidelity. She did it for her children. At the end, her endurance seemed to be worth it, because we still had a home to return to and my father eventually abandoned his sexual escapades. Whatever their personal shortcomings, my parents' devotion to their family has never ceased to inspire me.

Both of my parents have long since died, but my memories of them live on. Recently, we have just buried my mother-in-law. They are all gone now, the last generation, and we will be the next to go. But life continues. Our children take over our places and raise their children. For better or for worse, it is the family that guarantees the survival of the human species. The future will hinge on the children coming through our families.

The meaning of family

Down through the ages, the family has evolved in its structures and functions -- from the hunting-and-gathering tribes, the extended families of farming communities, to the nucleus families of the modern age. More recent phenomena include blended families, and families with single parents and same-sexed parents. What defines a family in its different variations?

As I look at the thousands of lights at night, I often wonder what kind of family live in that house or in that condo. Between death and birth, how do they live out their lives? Are there horrors of abuse and betrayal? Has grace arrived at their home, unannounced? How many tears are shed behind those walls! How many hopes are born behind those windows! Each lighted room tells a different story, and yet they are all about the sorrows and joys of family.

By any other name, a family remains a family, because of its unique bond that holds us together -- a bond that is thicker than blood. It is this deep and unshakable bond, which distinguishes families from urban tribes or mere households. It is a tacit unconditional commitment, a voluntary submission to a covenant -- to love and care till death. It is such total selfless love and fearless devotion to each other that makes us family.

Like countless other couples, Mary and John get married because they are madly in love with each other. They feel that it would be exciting to have a child; so they give birth to little Johnny. But the demands of caring for a baby and the financial pressure to work longer hours gradually eat away whatever romantic feelings they still have for each other. What are the chances that this family will survive all the forces arrayed against it? Will it survive boredom, misunderstanding, betrayal, infidelity, addiction, depression, sickness, unemployment, marital conflicts, parenting problems, and a host of other stressors?

We do not create a home with bricks and mortar; nor do we start a family with passion and birthing. Family is not about us - our needs and convenience; it is about others - all those we embrace as our family. It is meant to be a cradle of virtues, a school of duties, and a place called home. The true potential of family is realized only in our undying devotion to one another.

Whenever we deviate from this ideal, we weaken the family. It is this stubborn, unwavering devotion to the family ideal that sustains us as individuals and as a society. Family is much more than a social unit responsible for procreation and socialization; it is imbedded in a much larger design. Family is both our highest calling and greatest achievement. We cannot fully appreciate the deepest meaning of family without viewing it from an existential-spiritual perspective.

An exile in search of a home

The imperative of devoting to family stems from the fact that we are all lonely strangers in a foreign land. In this vast universe, among billions of strange faces, we are constantly seeking a place, which we can call home. It is a longing, an instinct rooted in our genes and planted deep in our souls. Like exiles from the Garden Eden and the proverbial prodigal son, we have been wandering restlessly, seeking to reconnect with a loving family, which we can call our own. We are weary of the mirages, which cannot quench our thirsty souls. We are tired of living alone with a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. Created for intimate communal living, we are incomplete without a home for now and eternity.

Indeed, there is no place like home, where we can all become what we are meant to be in a safe and loving environment. But where can we find a home sweet home? Paradoxically, it is only when we are totally devoted to our family before we can experience its blessings. It takes individual sacrifices and collective responsibility to create a healthy family that allows individual members to fulfill their dreams. Such a family will provide:

  • The nurturance and secure attachment so that infants can survive and have a firm foundation for healthy development
  • The basic values of trust and responsibility so that the children can become good citizens
  • The encouragement, discipline and challenges so that adolescents are equipped to create a better future
  • The warmth and understanding that adults need in order to be re-energized for their daily struggles
  • The care and protection that older persons need in order to remain part of the flow of living
  • The support and sharing of grief we all need when a family member passes away
  • The joy and contentment that come from knowing that we belong to a family where we are accepted and loved unconditionally

That dreaded feeling of loneliness is finally gone, when people are devoted to each other. Together, you can create all those magic moments. Just listen to children's laugher that fills the air. Smell the mouth-watering aroma in the kitchen just before dinner. Experience the intimate glow of the crackling fire in a wintery night. Savor the trips and vacations captured in family albums. You can still hear the voices of your loved ones who have gone. Of course, you also remember the dark valleys of struggles and conflicts. Throughout the comings and goings, in their togetherness and separateness, the bond remains. Love covers up a multiple of sins and reaches across the vast divide.

In the early eighties, I had the privilege of working with many "boat people" from Vietnam. Most of them had lost everything; many had gone through traumas and tragedies. They found themselves refugees in a foreign land with a different language and culture. They had more than their share of family problems - acculturation stress, discrimination, poverty, intergenerational conflict, and separation from loved ones left behind. But they found strength through sticking together and caring for each other as families. It is through suffering and struggling together that they discover the amazing depth and sustaining power of family love.

What is a dysfunctioning family?

If devotion defines happy family, then the lack of devotion characterizes unhappy family, which may have many faces. It could be a very orderly family controlled by an oppressive parent, a democratic family without boundaries, a wealthy family with "absentee" parents, and a household of individuals all living their separate lives. The most telling sign of toxic families is the total absence of any sense of family loyalty.

We typically associate dysfunctioning families with domestic violence and substance abuse. But no family can function properly, when its members stop caring for each other. Just being selfish is sufficient to tear a family apart. Having an affair has the potential of destroying two families. From Greek mythologies to Shakespearean tragedies, one of the recurring themes is the family torn asunder by passion, jealousy, greed and selfish ambitions. There is an added poignancy to these tales, when a trusted family member inflicts the pain or delivers the deadly blow.

Apart from human failings, so many events can contribute to family dysfunctioning. Whenever a family member suffers from mental illness or life threatening disease, the entire dynamic of the family can be severely disrupted. Prolonged unemployment and poverty can fracture a fragile family system. There are also transgenerational risks. Depression and alcoholism tend to run in the family.

Is there any escape from dysfunctioning family? Can we use it as an explanation for murdering our parents or spouses? Is it better to avoid the perils of marriage and family by staying away and staying single? I don't have the answers to these troubling questions, but I do believe in hope - there is hope for any family by rediscovering love and devotion. The battle must be fought and won not in the political arena of cultural warfare, but in your own heart and soul - whether you want to remain part of the family legacy of pain or become part of an alternate legacy of virtues.

Conclusions

Think of a family as a finely tuned delicate system of a watch; even when one or two tiny parts are impaired, the entire system malfunctions. If love is the oil that keeps the system running, then paying attention to details keeps the system from breaking down.

We typically blame the parents when there are family problems or when the children get into trouble with the law. But from a system perspective, a child can break or make a family. A child can lead the way. By its simple-minded love and trust, a child can lift the spirit of the entire family.

The promises of happy family are awaiting us, but it demands the collective efforts from all members. It is never too late to love again. It is never too little to reach out a hand. When hearts are reconnected and hands are joined, a family is reborn.

The family ideal cannot be realized without our determined efforts and a plan of action. It takes time, resources and self-sacrifices to building a healthy family. It is only through the process of family building that we can express our full humanity and fulfill our own dreams.