I am continuing my journey through G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics.
Welcome to Christmas Eve, a time when families get together and celebrate the holiday. Times like this either show the Hallmark ideal or the messy reality. Whatever the case our family is not something we just chose.
Heresy exposed: That a family is a human institution and is whatever we want it to be.
Summary of Chapter:
The family has been around from the dawn of time basically because to make a child you need both a male and a female. Christianity,a s a religion, did not create the idea of the family – it only made it sacred.
Christianity, even enormous as was its revolution, did not alter this ancient and savage sanctity; it merely reversed it. It did not deny the trinity of father, mother, and child. It merely read it backwards, making it run child, mother, father. This it called, not the family, but the Holy Family, for many things are made holy by being turned upside down. But some sages of our own decadence have made a serious attack on the family. They have impugned it, as I think wrongly; and its defenders have defended it, and defended it wrongly. The common defense of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defense of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defense is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.
A family is a messy thing. Having grown up in a family and having a family has taught me one very important thing: they are all full of moments that one cannot call calm. The family is not one that is seen on TV, but real. Day in and day out there are the same people with the same personalities, with the same issue, with the same love.
Here is the twist, I would rather be with my family because they make me live in a larger world as well as cause me to grow.
There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.
Why is this paradox true? Because we like to hide in crowds and escape from what would challenge us. We have become like the Cyclops in the story ‘The Odyssey’. Of course the Greeks did not believe in giant one eyed monsters. They did however represent the thing they feared most as monsters: the people who did not believe in a community. Those people have nothing but themselves and become monsters.
If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active.
The complaint we commonly have to make of our neighbors is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business. We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business. If our neighbors did not mind their own business they would be asked abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbors. What we really mean when we say that they cannot mind their own business is something much deeper. We do not dislike them because they have so little force and fire that they cannot be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well. What we dread about our neighbors, in short, is not the narrowness of their horizon, but their superb tendency to broaden it. And all aversions to ordinary humanity have this general character. They are not aversions to its feebleness (as is pretended), but to its energy. The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.
The thing about community is that in actuality we do not have the control we think we do. We can claim certain people into our social circles but God puts in those that we do not choose. The people that cause us to grow the most are the ones that come into our lives not just the ones we want. The family is the perfect example of this: We are born into them.
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation.
The institution of the family is to be commended for precisely the same reasons that the institution of the nation, or the institution of the city, are in this matter to be commended. It is a good thing for a man to live in a family for the same reason that it is a good thing for a man to be besieged in a city. It is a good thing for a man to live in a family in the same sense that it is a beautiful and delightful thing for a man to be snowed up in a street. They all force him to realize that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside. Above all, they all insist upon the fact that life, if it be a truly stimulating and fascinating life, is a thing which, of its nature, exists in spite of ourselves.
The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.
We crave adventure. That is why we climb mountains (because it is there) or sail the seas. When we chase adventure we only worship ourselves because that is not what adventure is. Adventure is something that comes to us not something that we manufacture.
The element of adventure begins to exist; for an adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose. Falling in love has been often regarded as the supreme adventure, the supreme romantic accident. In so much as there is in it something outside ourselves, something of a sort of merry fatalism, this is very true. Love does take us and transfigure and torture us. It does break our hearts with an unbearable beauty, like the unbearable beauty of music. But in so far as we have certainly something to do with the matter; in so far as we are in some sense prepared to fall in love and in some sense jump into it; in so far as we do to some extent choose and to some extent even judge–in all this falling in love is not truly romantic, is not truly adventurous at all. In this degree the supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.
In order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we like very little. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel.
The modern heresy of we choose who our family is follows from the desire of us to always be in control. Now of course there are those who like to call their close friends: family but even then those people do not fully control those close friends.
Because we cannot control people (thank goodness) we have adventure. It is this grand adventure we worship on this season – the adventure of God becoming man, living in a family on earth, and inviting us to be part of His.