Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Seventeen: The Cure and Recommitment
by Richard and Linda Eyre
Note: In this twenty-six part column, Richard and Linda Eyre explore the recent revolution of the family from the honored centerpiece of society to a disrespected and seemingly redundant appendage to the larger corporate and cultural institutions of our new world. Re-valu-ing the family, the Eyres believe, is the only alternative to America’s demise. The sequence of the column is: A. Re-valu-ing the family (part I); B. The “crux” (parts 2 and 3 — why family is the foundation for everything, including happiness); C. The “curse” (parts 4 and 5 — the social problems that plague our society today); D. The “crisis” (parts 6 and 7 — the breakdown and breakup of families that allows and leads to the social problems); E. The “cause” (parts 8, 9, 10, 11 — the reasons our families are failing); F. The “culprits” (parts 12, 13, 14, and 15– how our new, large institutions are destroying the small, most basic institution of family); G. The “cure” (parts 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 — what you as a parent can do about it); H. The “case” (parts 23, 24, and 25 — a case for government and big corporations to pay more positive attention), and I. Finding or forming a family support group (part 26).
This week, in part 17, we continue with the “cure” and focus on the power of recommitment.
It was a good friend of ours, a country doctor who has attended the last hours of many people’s lives, remarked that he had never heard anyone on their deathbed say, “Oh, I wish I’d spent more time with the business,” or “If only I’d been able to buy one more new car.” The regrets people have at the end of life (as well as their most cherished memories) invariably have to do with family.
And the regrets come not only at the very end of life. So many in their fifties, sixties, or seventies, even those who have every material thing they ever wanted, find their lives empty and hollow, lonely and meaningless because they forfeited family somewhere along the way. They miss so desperately the relationships that they gave up (or gave up on) sometime back in mid-life.
The pattern is so frighteningly predictable: In “early life” we fall in love, start families, and know the joys and sorrows that come with the risks of committed, caring relationships. In mid-life we grow impatient, disillusioned or just tired, and allow some combination of selfishness, foolishness, and fatigue to turn away from spouse or child. Or, we simply stop putting forth the necessary effort and let family relationships gradually slip and slide away. Then in late life we realize that what we gave up was everything and what we traded it for is nothing.
It is in mid-life (sometimes very early mid-life — this time of slippage and selfishness) that we need a purposeful and powerful recommitment to relationships. Deep down, we all know that family is the first priority and that David O. McKay was right when he said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home..” Yet the world pulls us in so many other directions. The false paradigms and the self-preserving larger institutions popularize materialism, self-gratification, and the “freedom” of ownership without obligation.
Family-destructive thoughts come so easily, “My wife doesn’t look as good as she used to. “My spouse doesn’t take care of himself;” “I just don’t have the energy to keep track of this kid any more;” “My spouse is so much less stimulating than the people I work with at the office;” “My life is so dull compared with what I see on TV;” “I’m thinking of what I could have if I spent a little more of what I earn on myself;” “Once kids are this age there’s not much I can do to influence them anyway;” “I’m completely tied down by my spouse and kids;” “There’s got to be something more to life than this;” “I’m just tired of trying to do everything for everyone else and nothing for myself.” The thoughts gradually work their way into negative words and actions.
We need an antidote — a vaccination against the slippage. The prescription we need is recommitment. Real commitment — deep and heartfelt commitment — is a “root” solution. It is the scriptural cure of turning our very hearts, it is a solution that moves up through the trunk and extends out to affect every branch and leaf. “Parenting methods” or “marriage techniques” may work here and there, but genuine commitment affects everything we do and, more importantly, everything we and those around us feel.
Commitment is hard to describe, but easy to feel — even vicariously through a story: When I was a young father, the church we went to had a program where the lay members would visit the homes of other members once a month to see how they were doing and to leave a spiritual thought. I was assigned to two families, one happened to be very wealthy and attractive — easy to admire. The man, about ten years older than I, had a successful business, a beautiful wife, bright kids, a mansion of a house, and drove a real Lamborghini. The second family was quite a contrast — poor, small house, seven people with only one bathroom.
I looked forward to the first visit each month — so much style and stimulation. The other house was pretty routine. Yet as the months passed, I found my anticipation shifting. I looked forward to the little house because the feelings and the atmosphere were so good there. And what had seemed to be busyness and excitement at the big house was revealing itself to be tension and all kinds of conflict and dissatisfaction — everyone running off in their own direction and trying to find something that fulfilled them.
We moved away a year or two later and I lost touch with both families.
Fifteen years later I was giving a speech at a university, and afterward a student came up and asked if I remembered her. She was one of the children from the small and humble house. As we talked, I got that same comfortable, quietly confident feeling that I used to feel in their home. I asked about the other family with the big house, and she told me that the parents had broken up and a couple of the kids were in rehab programs. Then I asked about her own family and particularly about her father, “What did he do that gave you all such confidence?” I wondered “What were his parenting techniques? I’m a dad now and I want that same feeling in my home.”
“Oh, we’re all fine,” she said. “Still not too well off, but everyone is making progress and we love each other more than ever.” On my second question she seemed a little amused. “You remember my dad,” she said, “he wouldn’t know a parenting technique if it came up and bit him.”
“That’s true — but what did he do,” I persisted. “I still remember how it felt in your home and I still see it in your eyes now.” She became more reflective and I saw something else in her eye — a tear. “You know,” she said, “I think it was just that we knew he’d never give up on us. We knew we were his first priority. He would make mistakes — he had a temper, still does — but he was just always there for us, and he’d tell us that.”
I think it was my obvious interest in what she was saying that kept her memories coming. “I remember he would come and sit on my bed and just hold my face in his hands and look right in my eyes and say, ‘I am totally committed to you. You are my first priority. I may screw up and you may screw up on this or that, but I will never give up on you and I will never stop loving you completely. You can count on that! You kids and your mother are my life. No matter what, you’ll always be the most important thing to me. I’m committed to your mother and I’m committed to you — always. Don’t you ever forget that!'”
She hadn’t ever forgotten it, and its powerful and secure effect still seemed to rest on her.
The interesting thing about marriage and parenting and family is that no one ever fails until they give up. There will be setbacks and problems, sometimes big, long-term problems, but I repeat, no one fails until they give up! We see examples of that every day. We see parents who hang in there, who keep trying, keep supporting, keep giving their unconditional love and keep telling their child of it — kids who are in trouble, kids who have run away, kids who won’t listen, won’t talk — and those kids eventually come around! Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, maybe not in ten years . . . but when the parent never quits, reconciliation does come, improvement does come. The same commitment-magic almost always works between marriage partners. Every imaginable problem may exist — but when no one throws in the towel, where the commitment is still there, things eventually get better!
We tend to undervalue and underestimate commitment. We forget about its pervasive power. Real commitment when it is felt, when it is expressed, when it is present in the air, has a way of shrinking problems, of making them look manageable. When commitment is thought of as unalterable, eternal, and unconditional, problems just can’t stand up to it — they can’t match it in its permanence. Whatever the forces are that undermine relationships and break up families, they tend to back off in the presence of deep, complete commitment, as though they had a mind of their own and choose to go work on someone else where there is less commitment and where they can do more damage.
Commitment is turning our hearts, locking our hearts on the relationships that matter. If we want to fix our families, to shore them up against the false paradigms and the larger institutions, to preserve them for our old age, to immunize them against all of their many potential destroyers, we must start with recommitment. Let the recommitment start in our heart and then we’ll be capable of sending it out through our words and our eyes to reassure and bless the lives of those we love most.
The real question, of course, is how we apply commitment. After we profess it to those we love most, how do we demonstrate it in everyday life? The answer here, and the beauty of it actually, is that different people will apply it in different ways. If your recommitment is real it will manifest itself in ways that are tailored to your own situation and your family’s own needs. The techniques are not as important as the heart, the methods are not as important as the commitment.
Too many parents approach the process backwards. They read of and try various parenting techniques in hopes that it will increase their feelings and their commitments. But if the heart is not there — not genuinely and truly turned to the family in a prioritized, unconditional love, then the methods will be hollow and generally ineffective.
Even having said that, there is one method we suggest to every parent — a mental method actually — a method for marshalling other methods, a method that is a direct manifestation of a turned heart — a method that has placed itself at the center of our marriage and our family for decades.
We call it a “5 Facet Review” and it works like this: Once a month (it’s best if there is a set day, like the first Tuesday) go on a “date” with your spouse if you are a two-parent family or with somone else who really knows a loves your children if you are a single parent. Go to dinner in a relatively quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed, and have only one item on your agenda — your children. Talk together about the five facets of each of your children, one at a time: How is Billy doing physically? How is he doing mentally? How is he doing socially? How is he doing emotionally? How is he doing spiritually? Think for potential problems, about opportunities or attributes.
Take notes. When you recognize a challenge or a need (or an opportunity), decide how to deal with it and who will handle it. You will leave with a clearer picture of a child and a more specific commitment to him and a more sharply focused love for him. Your heart will turn. The next month, bring your notes from the previous session. How are things changing? What has been resolved? Did you follow through? Pin down the needs and focuses for next month’s as you go through the five facets once again.
Next week: This column will continue its seven-stage treatment of the “cure.” (See the end of installment 16 for a list of the seven stages.) Stage two (next week) is about substituting correct principles for false paradigms.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.