Chapter 5: Familial Relationships

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: Familial Relationships

The first of the concentric circles beyond the self is that which has to do with an other, the person with whom we are in most intimate relationship. The second circle, to which we turn in this chapter, is what I have here called “familial” — that is to say, with our family or in similar groupings. By the family I do not mean only what nowadays sociologists call “the nuclear family” — husband, wife, and children. What we shall be considering is the relatively close-knit unit or group, composed of a few people — normatively, of course, a family in the ordinary sense but also other possible associations that involve the presence of a person with several others, so that there can be an expression of belonging, with mutual love and concern, sympathy, and understanding, and hence the opportunity and occasion for enrichment and growth in each of the participants. Perhaps one may think here of communes or of very close friends with whom one finds real companionship.

We have seen, in the intimate relations of person-to-person, negative possibilities that can seriously damage if not destroy the relationship. Here, as we turn to larger groupings, we may profit by looking at the positive side. When we do this, we shall have a useful indication of the elements that constitute a healthy and mature existence as this may be shared in exactly such familiar situations or in those that resemble them.

The negatives have been self-centeredness, depersonalization. cruelty, carelessness or irresponsibility, and disproportionate emphasis upon one single aspect of the relationship — and with these a joylessness in the linking of one with an other. The positives, therefore, will be an awareness of others and a sharing of life with them, an augmenting of personal identity and integrity, an upbuilding in healing and caring, concern for the others that will not permit cruelty or carelessness, and a stress upon the wholeness of each in the grouping — and with all these, a joy in being together which makes the common life delightful and aesthetically fulfilling or harmonious. As we went through the negatives, so here we shall go through the positives. For the positives respond to, and at the same time manifest, human needs and their satisfaction. Just as in one-to-one relationships the negatives damage and may destroy, so the positives (now applied to familial groupings) will produce right ways of becoming and, hence, promote sound and healthy development. In such groupings, seen positively, there is the opportunity for a genuine flowering of human potentiality. Perhaps this is why the family and suchlike groupings are commonly regarded as among the most rewarding of all modes of human community.

In our relationships with one other person, but also in the larger familial relations we are now considering, what is being sought and from time to time achieved is genuine mutuality. It is in fact belonging in a very real sense, where one knows others and enjoys being with them, yet with due regard for their integrity and for their personal identity. They are not thought to be “individuals” in isolation from others; their belonging seems instinctively to entail a desire to share in common concerns and interests. The loner, who has no such urge, is not very typical of most of the human race. He or she may best be seen, perhaps, as someone whose natural human wish for sharing has somehow been warped or stunted, maybe in early childhood or at a later stage where there has been a sense of rejection or disregard. Normally and typically, every man and woman wants and seeks for companionship of some sort, not only with those who are closest but with others as well.

I have already urged that it is a mistake to think that humans are by nature totally self centered. The error arises from a wrong interpretation of the obvious fact that everybody wants to be a self, to have a sense of the value of his or her selfhood, and to realize, so far as may be, the potentialities given in that selfhood. Thus, self-awareness and even a degree of self-concern are both necessary for each of us and also a condition for the sharing that each seeks. Without such specific identity and the related integrity of self there would be nothing to share; we should all of us be lost in a repetition of the same thing over and over again. There would be a dull and uninviting uniformity that would fail to seek, find, and value the variety and difference that makes human existence both delightful or enjoyable and also painful. The union of persons, both in the more intimate sense and in the wider sense of degrees of sociality, requires that there be distinct persons, each marked by his or her own speciality, with whom association may be found. Of the pain that this necessarily entails we shall speak later; here let it be said that it is erroneous to assume, as have some careless theologians and sociologists among others, that human wrong is located in self-concern. The truth is that everybody needs to be aware that he or she counts in the total human picture. Wrong enters the picture only at the point where this entirely natural and necessary self-concern becomes the controlling interest, so that others are given no place in thought and practice. That is the contradiction of mutuality and is the kind of belonging in which other persons are taken to be only adjectival to one’s own existence.

It is easily seen that familial groupings of the kind we are now discussing are made possible only through this wish for mutuality. Common enterprises, shared concerns, pursuit of agreed upon goals, and the like provide for us the means through which giving-and-receiving may be attained. But they should not become exaggerated or obsessive, so that there is nothing else in the relationship. A husband and a wife have their shared concern for their children, if they have any; they are concerned also about the house in which they live and about whatever initial interests may have drawn them together in the first place. In participation one with the other they find a genuine fulfillment of selfhood, and society at large is enriched by this achievement. A central devotion to what we may style “the common good” is part of the sense. When Rollo May writes in his book Paulus (p. 113) about his friend and teacher Paul Tillich, he speaks about Tillich’s relationships with others by saying, “His love for us was relentless in his . . . insistence on our best. It was a magnificent grace to us that he would not let us escape from becoming what we truly are.” Here we see both a deep appreciation of each for herself or himself and a readiness to demand this from those with whom one is associated. At the same time, in the devotion to a common good — in this case, to the particular subject in which both have an interest — there is a fine instance of healthy and enriching ways of promoting for each the fullest realization of selfhood that is possible. Each of us, in becoming, needs exactly some such awareness of belonging with others in the total human enterprise.

Tied in with this is our second point. Familial life when at its best is so ordered that the personal quality of others is augmented; they cannot be treated as if they were merely objects or things to be used by one person simply to promote that person’s own development. This is an implication of genuine love. Such love cannot conceivably wish to “thingify” or depersonalize; when we see depersonalizing taking place, we can be sure that instead of love we have only a sentimental substitute or what amounts to a mere pretension (romantic or tolerant) for true concern. Words are easy to speak, but what is important in relationships is acts done, rather than chatter, and done in a manner that assists growth in others.

If this is true, then it is obvious that a familial grouping cannot be marked by cruelty, whether this is of a plainly physical sort or the more subtle (but more harmful) kind that likes to make others feel uncomfortable or unwanted or unnecessary. Love forbids such cruelty. Love is always for healing and never for hurting. In intimate relationships this sadism can be terrible in its effects; so also in familial groupings it can be frightening in the way in which it damages integrity and leads to a deterioration of character not only in the victim but also in the one who inflicts the harm. On the other hand, concern for others expressed in helpful and upbuilding action results in the best growth of all who are in the group — including, once again, the person who shows this concern.

Such dedication to the good of others does not imply a lack of firmness nor does it acquiesce readily in less than the best. The quotation from Rollo May about his friend and teacher Paul Tillich shows that one of the ways in which genuine caring is manifested is precisely in the insistence that others shall “become what they truly are,” to use May’s own phrase. In other words, they are assisted in realizing their potentialities and are (so to say) incited to move in that direction. Nothing can be worse than indifference in this matter; such unconcern has the effect of cruelty, even if often quite unconsciously, by negating the other. There is an old saying that speaks about “being cruel to be kind.” That is an unhappy way of putting it, for cruelty is never right. But it probably is intended to point to what I have called firmness, and what others have styled “adamant demand,” in the expectation of, as well as in an insistence upon, the best from others. This shows love in a way much deeper than the laissez-faire attitude that is easy to adopt but often enough is only a demonstration that there is no real caring at all.

Most of us can testify to the sense of hurt we have felt when someone with whom we thought we were in close rapport in some group of friends — or in family life in the narrower sense — demonstrates by act that he or she does not really very much care for us. Many a family or group of close friends can bear witness to the damage done when one of its members is like that or when the whole group shows carelessness. The consequence is a sense of discouragement, for it implies disregard or dismissal from consideration. This may not be cruelty in either the physical or psychological sense, narrowly interpreted, but certainly it is cruelty in that it is a failure to recognize and respond to the personal quality of each member. What Coleridge used to call “personeity” is integral to the human self: it must be respected. When it is respected, there can be a remarkable flowering of hitherto unsuspected possibility. Like a rose that opens its petals when the sun shines upon it, this or that person may open up in a remarkable manner. There is no place where one or the other of these — augmenting or diminishing — may be more effectual than in familial groups.

Does each care for all? That is the basic question here, and it is related immediately to the responsibility about which I have spoken. This responsibility includes the two factors of readiness to respond to others who are associated with us and our accountability in respect to those others. The latter can be possible only when the former is present. The one who can take seriously his or her accountability for others is the one who first of all has “answered back” to the reality of those others. In groupings like the family, the importance of this can readily be seen; if I do not respond to my husband or wife or children, in that profound sense, I am all too likely to be careless about responsibility for them and to them. But when there is on my part an openness and a genuine responsiveness. I find myself seriously involved and know that in however small a degree I am accountable for them and to them. There is a deepening of mutuality and a growing-together in the relationship that is rewarding and joyous.

This carries with it a concern for what I have styled the “self-esteem” of others. That means that I cannot let them think that they have no value in themselves; I cannot “take care of them” as if they were worthless or incompetent or helpless. The integral selfhood of the others, each with his or her self-esteem, demands that i acknowledge them for themselves, with the capacity to make their decisions and “do their own thing.” No other, however closely knit with me in some grouping, is an extension of myself; to think that way, above all to act as if that were the case, is destructive of the giving and receiving that can characterize human belonging when it is functioning at its best.

This is why awareness of and sensitivity to mutuality or sharing must be part of familial existence. This closeness, however, needs to be put in the context of other and wider contacts. Without that context, there is the danger that the family and its like will become so focused on itself, so inward-looking, that it becomes a cell of unhealthy life, not of healthy and developing life. Sociologists and anthropologists have spoken of the way in which the nuclear family — the small group of three or four persons — can be vicious because it may (not must) become centered on its own existence and, hence, entirely inward-looking — like a pond with no outlet. The small group is especially open to danger here. A married couple with one or two children can spend all their time and effort on themselves. They can lose sight of the larger community, save insofar as they are anxious to keep up appearances. They can try to make their neighbors and acquaintances think that they are sufficient unto themselves and, hence, reject advances from or toward others round about. The final result can be disastrous,

What Sir Edmund Leach in his Reith lectures a few years ago called “the dirty little secrets” of the group — by which he meant not sexual doings of one sort or another but the group’s financial position, its petty maneuvers to maintain a place in society, its secret and “shameful” (as it sees it) dependence on hire-purchase plans or installment buying — may become so dominant that all its time and effort will be given to such worries. In the long run there is then a failure, since it is not possible for any group to be sufficient unto itself. We all need the give-and-take of our societal existence. And for what it is worth, it is useful to point out that what is here true for the familial relationships is also, and sometimes horribly, true in respect to neighborhoods, or cities, and nations. Ours is indeed a belonging world, and we can live well and happily only on such terms as are appropriate to such a world.

The analogue, in familial groups, to the disproportionate or “inordinate” emphasis on genital sexuality in one-to-one relationships is to be found in a total centering upon the particular associations of the group. Just as the physical union of two persons becomes rich and rewarding, and not only gratifying in a physical and emotional sense, when it is expressive of a wide sharing of life together, so also a family that is totally centered in itself, without concern for those around it and for the broader matters they represent, is likely to lose a great deal, while with such an awareness and wider sharing it is likely to be rich and rewarding. Total group-centering can be morbid and sick and even self-destructive. On the other hand, openness to others and delight in their presence and activity can give color and vitality to the group’s own existence. A family — say, a couple with children — needs that context. From such contacts with the “outside world” opportunity is given for surprise, contrast, challenge, and joy. Thus, the family is delivered from what somebody has well called “the abyss of self-centered isolation.”

I have spoken of joy, and this brings us to the last of the positive directives or guidelines for healthy and happy familial life. A group that does not experience such joy in belonging together is hardly likely to survive for very long, save by a superficial bonding of those who really have nothing in common. The members exist together, to be sure, but they find no delight or satisfaction in that association. But this joy is not to be had for nothing. This is why entrance upon familial life of any sort requires care in the selection of partner or partners, along with a willingness to spend oneself for the familial group being established.

In that selection, several factors play their part, such as common interests, but also a sufficient difference is needed so that life does not become monotonous. What is wanted is contrast but not conflict. A beautiful painting has no mere repetition of color and line but presents sufficient contrast to give variety and charm without setting up an ugly conflict among these colors and lines. This is even more obvious in music, where there must not be discordant opposition of theme and mood and style but a harmonization of these in a grand totality of sound. In a familial group something of this sort of pattern should also be present. Harmony is the precondition for the deepening of life together, with the joy this can bring. And as the years go by, each person in the group comes to understand the differences, to accept them, and to delight in them.

Thus, a family needs the positives that I have been presenting; it needs also to avoid, so far as possible, the negatives that are their opposite. But it is unlikely that any familial group is likely to achieve perfection in this or any other respect. Certainly genuine effort can help. But human life together, like the life of each one of us, is a becoming, not a static thing; it is a direction taken, a routing of experiences, toward a goal that is valued as important. Judgment at any point along the line should always be in terms of that direction or routing — this is true for a group as for a person. Specific momentary acts or thoughts or words have their significance in that they indicate whether or not the direction or routing is for the best ends. Failure to understand this and to come to terms with it will produce dissatisfaction and even pessimistic rejection of good already known. Or it may produce a kind of easy satisfaction with the status quo, acceptance of the partial good as if it were the fully realized one, or dismissal of the final goal through concentration on this or that specific problem.

I have said that the nuclear family is a fact of our own day. It is often defended as being the way things have always been, to such an extent that it is given an almost idolatrous devotion, not least in ethical and religious discussions. As a matter of fact, however, it is of fairly recent origin. In older times, as social historians have shown, the extended family was the normal arrangement, and it still continues to be normal in many parts of the world, even if in Western countries this is not always recognized. Such an extended family included in its membership relatives and other near members of the clan or sect or group. There would be grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, children, and, of course, the parents of the contemporary group or those who otherwise were in a position of leadership. The numbers and the kinds of membership varied, to be sure, from culture to culture, place to place, and time to time. But the grouping would cross generations and would bring together old and young, immediate and somewhat more remote family connections and siblings, and others, too — all of these might live in one place or sufficiently close so that a common life was possible. Even so recently as the days before the First World War, as some of the older of us can remember, it was quite normal for one or more grandparents, perhaps an aunt or an uncle or both, sometimes cousins of first-degree, and even others somewhat related, to share a house together or to be readily accessible in times of trouble or in moments of familial celebration. They would give help where this was needed; they would be consulted about problems; they would participate in family activities: and often they would have their part in family decision making.

Obviously, all this is not very frequent today, and in many parts of our Western world it has disappeared altogether. The familial group is smaller, not only because family planning has become a matter of ordinary practice but also because economic and social conditions have made large households almost impossible to maintain. Older people are likely to be cared for in special homes or communities for the aged and for those who have retired from active work. Sometimes, of course, the elderly prefer to be on their own. But even if they do not (and many do not) wish this, social pressures are sufficient to make them feel that it will be better for them not to burden others by their presence and demands.

One of the problems this situation has brought about is precisely the possibility of a far too ingrown and self-retarding attitude. The family is closed in upon itself and lacks genuine openness to others, especially those who by reason of consanguinity or similar status might provide fresh opportunities for enrichment and growth, with more challenges for new kinds of response and with awareness of the diversity of human existence. The end result may be a refusal to admit others at all: anybody who “butts in” will certainly be rejected. This need not happen; but it does indeed happen far too frequently. Doubtless we all know familial groups where this introversion is found.

Probably one of the main causes for the increasingly large numbers of divorces or separations in the usual family group is simply that husband or wife become bored or “fed up” with the narrowness and restrictions they meet. They then try to find something or someone new and interesting. Children can suffer badly in these circumstances, although they are better off when there is a real break if the parents are so bored with one another or even so dislike one another that the children’s existence is made miserable. People often say that they will “stick together” because the children otherwise will have no “real home.” Of course, the fact is that in such a situation these children do not have a “real home” in any serious sense. All they have is a place in which they can sleep and eat.

Familial life is not ideal or perfect most of the time. It can only have value if and as its members decide to work at it, not in a painfully severe fashion but with genuine willingness to do what they can to promote and augment the relationship, with due recognition of likely failures and with a readiness to accept these when they happen. But to do this requires forgiveness. That is to say, each must make allowances for the defects of others quite as much as being aware of his or her own defects. All must seek the good of each. To forgive is never easy; neither is acceptance of forgiveness. Yet without the spirit of forgiveness nobody can hope to share life with others. This is not the same as advocating cheap toleration or easy acceptance. True forgiveness demands a concern and care for others, a sincere readiness to cooperate with them so that their best may be achieved, and a faithful expectation that each can grow toward that best. Here, of course, the religious awareness of divine forgiveness provides the clue to what human forgiveness must be. And it requires always a not easily acquired willingness to take risks.

With forgiveness goes forbearance. Here is a situation in which “letting be,” to use a phrase from Martin Heidegger with which John Macquarrie has made us familiar, is so important. Just as God’s continuing creative activity does not directly “make” things but rather allows, encourages, and assists them to “make themselves,” so in the familial group we can allow others to “make themselves,” with all the difficulties this may seem to include. I believe that this principle runs through the whole cosmos, but its necessity is very plain for the familial relationship. Assumption of control by any one member of the group can have as a consequence the denial to others of the proper exercise of their capacity for free decision. When something like this happens, we no longer have a genuine family unit; instead, we have lord and servants, master and slaves, tyrant and submissive subjects. It becomes even worse when the servants, slaves, or subjects come to feel and to act as if this is the way things must be; then they have given up their human dignity and have denied the human potentiality that is properly theirs.

Probably most of us have known familial groups in which one of the parents assumes just such a position of total domination. If there are children, they will revolt. The parent will be greatly disturbed by this revolt, whether it is subtly expressed or when it is implemented in the child or children actually “leaving home” or manifesting outright and open rebellion. But the person or persons who are subjected to domination have not really had a ‘home.” They have felt that they are in a prison, and they become (sometimes violently) antagonistic to the parent who, doubtless with good intentions, has denied them the freedom so essential to becoming truly human. It is tragic to see how frequently the one who dominates does this with “good intentions”; it reminds one of Pascal’s saying that people “never sin so seriously as when they do it with good intentions.”

I have said that in this chapter I am using the word family to include not only what is usually meant by that word but also other types or varieties of close relationship with more than an other. One of these, about which there is not time to speak in detail, is the “commune,” a mode of grouping that in some parts of the Western world has become increasingly popular. Observers have predicted that this sort of social grouping will be the successor to the nuclear family. One may doubt that this will happen; yet certainly a commune can often come close to the old extended family, even if the reason for its existence is different, The fact remains that a considerable number of young people are now finding genuine fulfillment in life together in this new fashion.

But maybe it is not so new, after all. One thinks of monasteries and convents and similar small communities that have existed in the past and that exist even today. In those communities there are “rules,” like the famous one devised by St. Benedict and still in force in the religious order he founded, This rule allows for considerable diversity yet establishes a remarkable unity among those who accept it. The trouble with such rules, however, is that they may be taken as absolute, without regard for the changes needed in adapting them to a new age. No rule can be final and complete; plainly enough, as the poet wrote, “new occasions teach new duties,” while “time makes ancient good uncouth.” Fortunately, this is realized today, and most of the followers of the “religious life” in convents and monasteries and similar communities have labored in recent years for a considerable relaxation, but without giving up their general agreement on basic principles. To a large degree, freedom is granted to the members, but they are still bound together by glad acceptance of the common life, and they use the rule as a guideline rather than as an arbitrarily imposed dictate.

A family grouping of any sort should be a cell of healthy and joyous caring, where warmth is felt and where love is experienced. Such groupings make possible remarkable development; they are enormously helpful to men and women in their becoming. And when we move from the intimate one-to-one relationship, through the sort or relationships with which in this chapter we have been concerned, to an even wider range (the third of my concentric circles) of human belonging in the broad social development of the human race, we shall find that many of the same principles hold good. Of the religious community, to which we shall later also give attention, this is obviously true. And the reason for this continuity is, I believe, that the very grain of the universe runs that way. In other words, these principles are in accordance with the divine activity in the creation.