The Politics of Families
What are the qualities we look for in a spouse? What do angst-ridden teens want from their parents? What do elderly mothers and fathers crave from their adult children? I would argue that in families the single most important quality we can look for is empathy. Our spouses may be brave or brilliant or bright-eyed, but what I think we want most is someone to listen and really care—someone to understand what motivates us and what drives us nuts.
We’ve all heard the complaints:
Are you going to clean up that mess or do you think it will clean itself up!
Our son failed his math test again!
Your idiot dog chewed up my new shoes!
Your mother is driving me f*****g crazy!
On a daily basis, our significant others, kids, and parents reach out to us in search of empathy. They’re not usually looking for problem-solving, but rather deep and meaningful partnership. They need us to stand in their shoes for just one moment so that we can understand how hard it is to be a teenage girl; how hard it is to take care of three little kids; how hard it is to listen yet again to the unsolicited advice of a nosy mother-in-law. The skill of empathy is not necessarily natural or easy to develop. But we frequently empathize with those closest to us because we love them. We love them in ways that defy our base selfishness.
A close cousin to empathy is compassion and it too is a key ingredient for a healthy family. Whereas empathy—or perhaps more accurately empathic reasoning—asks us to understand or even comprehend how the other person feels, compassion asks us to care deeply or feel sympathy for the other person. When our child is upset over not being invited to a playdate, empathy is perfectly fine, but that child probably needs our compassion. Empathy is the difficult work of trying to understand others’ concerns when they are not necessarily ours. Compassion is a heartfelt hug.
In addition to empathy and compassion, I believe humility, sacrifice, and forgiveness are indispensable features of a strong family. Humility is the ability to question the preeminence of our own views. This is especially critical when there is a power imbalance between a couple, and perhaps more importantly, in the case of parents and their children. There is a natural inclination for a parent to believe that their child should behave in certain ways: I was a football player, so you should be a football player; I like going to the beach, so you should like going to the beach; I was a Boy Scout, so you should be a Boy Scout. In godlike fashion, many parents believe that their children were created in their own image. Of course biology makes that belief partially true, but thankfully children come in all sorts of new flavors—prickly parents often have sweet kids, uncoordinated couch potatoes have star athletes, and bookworms have TV lovers. The most important thing for parents to do is to zealously question their own assumptions about what’s right for their kids.
Sacrifice is seemingly the most obvious of family virtues, but that belies the subtle nature of it. We take care of sick parents, help out struggling siblings, drive endless carpools, and sit through mind-numbingly boring school events smiling and feigning interest. Although these types of sacrifices are important, I am talking about sacrifice on a deeper level—the kind of sacrifice that requires you to swallow your pride, temper a core belief, or willingly lose an argument that has significant consequences to your own understanding of who you are. We sacrifice for those we love because we realize the transcendental nature of our sacrifice. We realize that the other person’s wellbeing is in fact part of our collective wellbeing and that is of greater significance than our own interests.
Lastly, forgiveness is essential because human beings—even the ones we love—can really suck. Practically speaking, forgiveness is a necessary means for moving beyond the imperfections of our loved ones and ourselves. We screw up. We yell. We act selfishly. Being part of a closely connected unit like a family means that members will occasionally (sometimes frequently) do unkind things to us. The act of forgiving is a recognition of the other’s inherent virtue and a reconciliation of the fact that this person we love is essentially good, but capable of some very bad things.
When I explain these five basic virtues to others, I often end up on the receiving end of an uncontrollable eyeroll or accusations that I’m a hypocrite. I confess—and it’s not just the false humility talking—that I am a huge hypocrite. I would never pretend that I am the most empathetic, compassionate, or forgiving person. God knows I’m not the most humble and I really don’t enjoy a good hard sacrifice. But that doesn’t change the fact that what I’m saying is probably right: empathy, compassion, humility, sacrifice, and forgiveness are indispensable values in a healthy family. The truth is that none of us are selfless and none of the virtues I’ve touted come easily. We are flawed and that is the reason why I feel so strongly about promoting a value system that put others’ first. We live in a culture, and come from a moral and political tradition, that emphasizes our individuality and freedom. But all that serves to do is magnify our flaws.
Imagine for just one moment that instead of our politicians being proud, autonomous, speak-your-mind cowboys, they were compassionate, empathetic, humble souls who were willing to sacrifice their own interests. Imagine that our politicians were experts at stepping outside of themselves to rationally empathize with individuals who were different from them. Imagine that they were modest and constantly sought out facts that challenged their own views. Imagine that our politicians were truly defined by their own spouses’ sacrifices, their own parents’ humility, and their own children’s willingness to forgive. Imagine that our politicians were as selfless as the most loving person in their own lives.