Promises and Perils of Family
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.