Step One to Understand

by John Antonio, LC | Source:

Have you ever had to ask Jimmy why he spontaneously squirted ketchup in his sister’s hair? Or maybe had to ask Maggie why she wanted to join the Merchant Marines rather than study at Harvard? It is not always easy to understand why people do things, even when it is your own child or adolescent. There is more than a generation gap amiss. Even parents argue dissertations about household nuances like whether wet bathroom towels should be left on the floor or a towel rack. You would think that living with someone for several years would automatically build understanding but sometimes the opposite seems truer.

One remedy is to crowd your shelf with self-help relationship books and squeeze in a page or two between flipping pancakes at 6:00am. But who knows if that will be enough when experts come out with more sophisticated diagnoses like “Temper Dysregulation Disorder with Dysphoria” and make you feel like you need a masters in psychology to understand why a 3 year old implodes when mom shuts off the TV. Reduced family time also reduces your odds at coming to an understanding. Stats from the last decade showed that the average child spends only five minutes a day with his father and less than 17% of households have a parent at home during the day with the child. Social sciences and statistics say a lot about the challenge of building a unified family. But there is also another approach to complex relationships; one that is perhaps more spiritual but not any less scientific. Pope Benedict takes it in Caritas in Veritate.

But what does a Papal encyclical on economic relationships have to do with family relationships? It does have to do with relationships to say the least and the science of building up the human family on the world scale is not much different from building any individual family. Ancient Greeks who coined the word “economy” meant it to refer to “the rule of the house”. A man’s responsibility to manage the relationships in a household was no small thing and for them it became something of an official praxis or quasi science to keep the family functioning harmoniously and efficiently. This “rule” involved a lot more than just managing money. It covered everything from religion to household chores. The complexities of economy as we know it today were already in some way present in the ancient nuclear family. Maybe they found themselves asking if thinking alone could solve all family challenges just as some people today hope that a brain big enough could find the solutions to all the complex social-economic relationships. But do all smart people have perfect relationships, and can knowledge alone lead to perfect understanding? In his encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI observes that “Deeds without knowledge are blind,” but also says that “Knowledge without love is sterile.”

It is not enough to try and know people. If we put all our hopes in knowing, figuring out and psychoanalyzing someone then disappointment will be short in coming. There is a greater power within us, more hidden than the so called “Dark Energy” of the unconscious brain and yet more enlightening than our brilliant rationality. Reason asks, “Why on earth are you here?” Love never hesitates to say, “It is good you are here.” It is good that you exist, that you are a part of my life, family—a part of this world. This is not the naïve love that never asks why Jimmy messed up his sister’s perm. But as the Pope would say, to really understand why he did it, we have to love first.

It would be unbearably pessimistic to say that this love is not already present, at least as intent, in the majority of families. Steven Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families mentions that he polled his audiences and found that 95% have “family” at or near the top of their values list. Fathers like Maggie’s would readily admit that they have no idea why she would pass up a scholarship to jump on a boat. But how many would say they do not love their daughters? The quest to understand one another in a family is natural, legitimate, and praiseworthy. The sooner you start the better. But in the end, a good way to begin may be to ask, “Were Adam and Eve created to understand each, or love to love each other?” 

Br John Antonio, LC studies for the priesthood in New York.

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