About the Author:
Matthew Kelly is the New York Times bestselling author of The Rhythm of Life and twenty other books that have been published in more than twenty-five languages and have sold more than 15 million copies.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Changing Face of Families
It has been only fifteen years since I graduated from high school, but the world has changed at warp speed during that time. Those changes are no more apparent than in the area of family. More than 50 percent of America’s children now live separated from their biological fathers. Like many, I think this is tragic, but I do not want to write a book about that tragedy. There has been enough written already. We can sit around cursing the darkness or we can turn on the light and find the best path forward.
What Is a Family?
It’s an interesting question. If you want to have some heated conversation, get a diverse group of people together for a dinner party and raise this question. This topic is nothing short of explosive at this time, both socially and politically.
There are many who would say the answer is very simple. A family is a mother and a father and their children. This answer is usually announced with a tone of absolute certainty, sometimes even arrogance, as if it were as obvious as the day is long and as old as time itself. Though if we travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe or south of the border to Central and South America, we quickly discover that a multigenerational definition of family that includes not only parents and children but grandparents and great grandparents is very much alive and well in many cultures. These cultures are also very much in celebration of the intergenerational definition of family that includes aunts and uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews.
The same person who answered with all that certainty—“A family is a mother and a father and their children.”—would reply to these points by saying, “Well, of course we consider grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews to be part of a family in a broader sense.” You see, in America today, the question—What is a family?—has become a secret code for the political question: Who should raise children?
I have had the pleasure of watching my good friend Pat Lencioni, the famed business author and consultant, work with executive teams on a couple of occasions. One of the exercises he does with these executives concerns the idea of core values. Most business leaders would now agree that a company should have a set of core values. If you were to visit the head office of most companies, you’d discover that these core values appear in various places—from annual reports to plaques in lobbies to mini-posters in hallways, cubicles, and lunchrooms. But if you ask most employees what do these core values mean, they will tell you that they mean nothing. This is because of how they were arrived at. A group of executives got together one day and decided they needed some core values for the company because they saw that some other company had them, and besides, it is now accepted wisdom that all companies should have stated core values. They pick values like integrity, compassion, and service. But the employees know from their everyday experience that these core values do not exist, and so rather than creating unity, they create disengagement and resentment.
The problem is that when the executive team sits down to arrive at their core values, they don’t ask: What are our core values? Rather, they ask: What should our core values be? So, what they come up with are in fact aspirational values (what they want the values of the company to be) not actual core values (what the values of the company actually are at this very moment).
Similarly, when the question is raised—What is a family?— most people reply by describing what they think the ideal family should be and not by describing their actual family, or the reality of most families.
Returning then to the dinner party reply—“A family is a mother and a father and their children.”—let’s have a look at how many people this definition excludes. Certainly a gay couple raising a child is excluded, and this, of course, is exactly who this answer is designed to exclude more often than not. But if we move for a moment beyond this highly emotionally charged social and political issue, who else gets excluded by this definition of family? Single mothers and their children, couples who are unable to have children, adopted children, foster families, grandparents raising children and the children being raised by grandparents, husbands and wives in second marriages and the children they are raising from either marriage, and so on.
If the question were: What is the best situation in which a child should be raised? I would tell you that in my own opinion the best scenario would be for a child to be raised by a loving biological mother and father who are deeply in love with each other, permanently committed to their own and to each other’s growth, and to supporting their child to become all he or she was created to be and achieve all he or she was created to accomplish. I would probably also add broad and deep intergenerational and multigenerational aspects to their family life along with the best education, opportunities to travel, and on and on and on.
That would be perfect, but in reality the life of human beings cannot be neatly packaged. Life tends to be messy most of the time. Very few children have these circumstances in all their breadth and depth, perhaps none. Though it does help to know what perfect would look like.
But the question is: What is a family? A family is not what we think a family should be, or what we hope to have, or should have, or what would be ideal—a family is what we actually have. A family is the one we’ve got. None of them perfect and all of them messy from time to time. Some of them messier than others. But there is no point telling someone that what they have is not a family.
So, while it is critically important that we continue to recognize and celebrate the ideal for a family and the ideal for raising children, it is more important that we realize where we are and what we have to work with—and begin that work today. In the pages that follow, you will find tools and insights to help you in the work of building a better family. The title is not Building Perfect Families. Perfect families exist only in our minds, and it is these imaginings that are very often the enemy of our ability to enjoy the wonderful family we already have, or might have if we made it just that little bit more of a priority.
Family and Today’s Culture—Opposing Purposes
The only place to begin our discussion of building better families is with an examination of purpose. What is the purpose of a family? The answer to this question can only be drawn from a vision of a human person. People do not exist for families; families exist for people. What, essentially, is a person’s purpose? If you have read any of my earlier works you know that I have repeatedly proposed that our essential purpose is to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. You are here to become all you were created to be. You are not here exclusively to do something or accomplish certain tasks, but to be and become someone. All the doing that fills our lives—relationships, school, work, politics, community involvement, recreation—is designed simply to provide opportunities for us to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. Could you have any better dream for your children, your spouse, or your parents than for them to truly become and fully celebrate the-best-version-of-themselves? It is the ultimate dream for those we love.
Our vision for family springs from this vision for a person. So we ask the question again: What is the purpose of a family? The purpose of a family is to help one another become the-best-version-of-ourselves and in the process contribute to the greater good of society and humanity. The family is the building block of all great societies. Sadly, we don’t hear much about the building of great societies anymore, and that may be because we mistakenly believe we already have them. So, though it should be unnecessary to ask the question, for the sake of clarity: Why is it important to build and sustain great societies? Because great societies give rise to great men and women who celebrate their best selves and in turn raise humanity to new levels. A family (or a culture or a society, for that matter) is not an end in itself, but exists at the service of a greater purpose. Families, cultures, and societies are true to themselves when they help their members become better-versions-of-themselves.
On paper this may all make sense, but you and I know how difficult it is to celebrate and defend our best self in the moments of everyday living, even before we take into account the influence of our environments.
People and families live in the midst of societies and cultures. In a utopian world, everything about a culture would be aimed toward helping each member of society become the-best-version-of-himself or -herself. In our very human world, however, we know this is not so. It is therefore important to examine the motives of the culture in which we live.
What is the purpose of culture? In general, the role of culture is to offer a broadening experience for the people of a society. But even this broadening should serve some greater overall purpose. Broadening simply for the sake of broadening is dangerous, irresponsible, and reckless. In its truest expression, culture would expose people to a broadening set of ideas and experiences that would be aimed at inspiring and assisting each member of that society to become a-better- version-of-themselves. Every aspect of the human experience should be seen with our essential purpose in mind. Culture is therefore only valuable to the extent that it helps the members of a society celebrate their best selves.
It is needless to say, and blatantly obvious, that our modern culture fails to deliver in this regard in too many ways to list. At every turn we are assaulted by ideas and experiences that not only do not assist us in our quest to become the-best-version-of-ourselves, but even worse, often introduce obstacles that significantly prevent us from embracing our best selves and following our destinies. Music, movies, television, magazines, theater, a visit to the mall, concerts . . . it has become increasingly rare that we emerge from any of these inspired to become a-better-version-of-ourselves.
So, what exactly is our culture trying to achieve? This is where we stumble upon the alarming truth. The vision of our culture is a nonvision. The agenda of our culture is a non- agenda. Our culture is not so much the presence of something as it is the absence of something. The stark reality is that our culture does not have a vision for the human person.
If that sounds a little confusing, imagine how confusing the actual experience of such a culture is for the average teenager.
We inevitably arrive at this haunting question: If there is no grand vision or agenda for our culture, what is driving it? You know the answer. Think for a moment. What is driving the modern popular culture in which our society is immersed? The answer: advertising and consumption. The goal of much of what drives our culture today seems to be nothing more than to create and encourage consumption. Last year’s clothes, though there is nothing wrong with them and they remain as perfectly useful as they were last year, are now magically no good, even inadequate, because they are out of fashion. The same is true of cars, cell phones, furniture, electronics, and hundreds of other items in dozens of other categories.
The practical reality is that the modern culture does not elevate a person; it consumes a person. The purpose of the family and the nonpurpose of the present culture are therefore directly opposed to each other. This places the family right at the heart of a cultural war.
Anyone interested in becoming the-best-version-of-himself or -herself has an uphill battle in today’s culture. It is true that this desire to become all we are capable of being would be difficult even in a culture that attempted to help people in this quest. The internal obstacles—laziness, procrastination, addiction—make it difficult enough as we strive to fulfill our destiny. A culture that opposes our quest adds a whole different set of challenges.
The greatest problem is not that the culture is what it is, but rather that we do not see it for what it is. That the culture opposes our efforts to become our best selves is a problem, but the greater problem is that we do not recognize or actively acknowledge that the culture opposes our essential purpose.
The consequence of these opposing purposes is that whether you are aware of it or not, if you are trying to achieve any of the following, you are in the middle of a cultural war:
·Build a better family
·Raise amazing children
·Have a great marriage
Our present culture does not lend itself to building better families, it promotes the destruction of families. This makes sense, if consumption is at the heart of our culture’s non- vision, because a broken family needs two of everything—two houses, two washing machines, two lawn mowers, two kitchen tables, and so on. If to create and perpetually increase consumption was your goal, you would want every family in the world to be broken apart as much as possible.
Similarly, our culture does not lend itself to raising amazing children. When was the last time you saw a really well-adjusted, selfless, thoughtful, child or teenager at the center of a popular television show? What place does our modern culture have for the compassion and virtue of a young person like Anne Frank?
If one of your goals was to have a really dynamic and wonderful marriage, and if you could choose between a variety of cultures, you certainly wouldn’t pick today’s. This culture’s ability to promote and sustain healthy marriages is now beyond a joke. In fact, what, if anything, does our culture do to promote dynamic and faithful marriage?
And finally, the big picture, in how many ways does our culture help you become the-best-version-of-yourself? Very few. Someone who seriously wants to grow in the midst of this culture is required to make a very concerted effort, to seek out the resources necessary to nurture such a journey, and to steel themselves against the never-ending onslaught of ideas and images that constantly present themselves and try to lure you away from your path. Why? No real reason, no real vision, no great agenda other than to sell you something (ideas or products). And again, we discover that consumption is not driven by the self-assured individual dedicated to being a well-rounded healthy contributing member of society. No, consumption is driven by the self-centered, self- interested, pleasure-seeking, insecure soul who needs the latest of everything in order to feel that he or she has any real worth. An emotionally healthy person consumes less than an emotionally unhealthy person. That’s why so much advertising does not make you feel good about yourself and the contribution you can make to society, but rather creates insecure and needy consumers who think that buying and having will deliver them to a place where they are at peace with themselves.
With every passing day, our culture caters more and more to the lowest common denominator. In doing so, the great center of society continues to be dragged to lower levels. The-least-possible-version-of-ourselves is where the culture is leading us. If you are the slightest bit interested in building a better family, raising amazing children, having a great marriage, and becoming the-best-version-of-yourself, it is time to recognize and daily affirm that the culture is no...
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