Sunday, May 29, 2011

Family and the Meaning of Life

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Achilles in Hyde Park (made from melting down Napoleon's cannons at Waterloo)

Why Family is Really, Really Important (Even Compared to Work)

In Homer's Illiad, Achilles is given a prophecy by his mother: go to Troy and die in glory, or live a peaceful life with your family in obscurity. It is the quintessential question for an ambitious man. Do you sacrifice your family for your career? I had always been of the opinion that Achilles, who chose honor over peace, chose rightly. But a few weeks ago, I had an experience that made me reconsider.

I had been home studying for the big mid-med school exam (USMLE Board Step I), and I had been having a wonderful time. I had great conversations with my brother and I shared most dinners with my parents. I was able to help out with some of the work that my dad was engaged with on our new family farm. One morning, I took my Bible and my breakfast outside. I sat on the back porch of my home, and, for no particular reason, I was overwhelmed by a deep peace. I thought, “This is what it’s all about: living life with one’s family.”

Family in the Bible

The Family is a critical part of God’s plan throughout the Old and New Testaments. From Genesis One up through the Epistles of Paul, human marriage and family is perhaps the most important metaphor for understanding God’s relationship with Man. It was not good that Adam was alone; he could worship God, but had no equal, no one by his side. So God created Eve. And from Eve, all the families of the earth were borne. God works through Abram to found his family, and then through Isaac’s and Jacob’s families. Throughout the Old Testament, God is comparing Himself to the husband and Israel to the bride. Jesus uses the family and the metaphor of marriage time and time again. The metaphor is given central importance in Paul’s writings, particularly in Ephesians, and said to be the way we come to understand God's relationship to us.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

I’ve been busy with many noble projects throughout the world ([chest puffed] if I don't say so myself). I thought that these were really what we should keep busy with while on earth. But I realized something: that my medical work and work for the poor should not be done. Not morally, but cosmically. My leaving home is a necessary evil. There is some greater evil, Poverty or Sickness, which calls me from my home, and so I rightly leave home to go fight. The shift in my perspective is in the permanence of fighting. I never appreciated that Sickness was a fleeting thing, that there will be no doctors in the Resurrection. I have been like a man who hears of a threat to his land, who takes his sword and goes off to war to fight for it. My epiphany was that my sword will one day be beaten into a plow because there will never again be a reason for me to leave home. Man’s destiny is domestic. Peace will not pass away. I saw my primary identity as a man going off to fight, not a father reluctantly drawn from his home.

While living at home, I realized that I have grown in various virtues. I’ve notice myself being more friendly, more bold in my relationships, and paradoxically, more ambitious in my community outside the home. Reflecting on the changes, I think that these changes came from my being more secure in my identity: I am the son of my father and mother; my role is to honor them, and to grow as a man in strength and goodness. They love and accept me, and support me in whatever I aspire to do. This was all true before living at home. But living at home has made that a daily reality. I can run on my own for a long while, but visiting home recharged me, giving me greater assurance of who I am and what I ought to be doing.

I am even beginning to think that, on the basis of these last two months at home, the spiritual and emotional benefits of living in a home with a family make a man even more productive than he would be; that is, though he spends fewer hours working outside the home, by his increased virtue, he accomplishes more. This is largely true historically: almost all great men were married.

Living near enough to a father and mother who love me is nice; but what if I established my own home and had that assurance perpetually? And what if I could give that assurance to another person, a wife who I loved like myself? And what if, by her, I could raise up children who would know they were loved as surely as they knew the sun would rise? How much more could we all love God and love our neighbors from so wonderful a sanctuary? I saw in that moment the great importance of establishing a home of my own.

Wonderful Dependence

It’s hard for a strong, proud person like myself to admit that my confidence could be increased by living with a loving family. Shouldn’t I be able to hold my identity in any circumstances, with or without human love? Theoretically, perhaps. But Man was designed to live in a family, and so it should be no surprise to see even myself, an independent, world-travelling, doctor-to-be operating better when living with my family.

With my recent breakup with Wisdom*, I’m still looking for someone. But I now have a new criterion. Previously, I was seeking a woman for companionship; I wanted someone I could pour my love into. I also wanted to find an ally; I was seeking a woman to who could fight by my side outside the home, for it was battles away from home which I had always valued most. And I still want these things. But now I realize that it is at least as important that she be my partner in establishing a family. I used to think that a family was something that was just going to happen; my wife would mostly take care of it while I did the important stuff outside the home. Now I’m beginning to see that a family is the greatest thing I could help to build.

Nothing has changed except my perspective. So I suppose that means everything has changed. My career ambitions and professional interests remain unchanged. I still expect that I will be called away by many worthy causes, and my honor will compel me to leave the home. But now, it will now be with some reluctance.

*She really was quite intolerable. I just talked to Folly (we didn’t do anything), and I didn’t hear the end of it. You’d think Wisdom would be more secure. She said it wasn’t a matter of her security, but of my commitment to our relationship. She’s really jealous. Folly is so much fun to be around, and now that I’m single again, I’ll probably be spending more time with her. And it turned out harder than I expected to be with someone so smart (or at least who thinks she’s so smart). Is it really reasonable that I’m the wrong one every time there’s a disagreement? Shouldn’t we at least split the blame sometimes? My parents told me to never date non-human girls. And, as always, it turns out they were right.


  1. Marriage and family definitely foster growth. I got married while I was still in college and afterward my GPA rose and then once we had a child (I had two semesters left) I got straight A's (I must confess I got a couple of A-'s) while working 30+ hrs per week and during my last semester while taking 21 credits. A successful marriage takes commitment and lots of work but there are tremendous growth opportunities.

  2. Wonderful post. Clone your brain and make the world eat it for breakfast! I'm so excited about you procreating and spreading these values someday, it's not even funny.