Tolstoy opens Anna Karennina by observing, "Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Perhaps its a sign that Tolstoy is indeed a very good writer that despite the fact this quote strikes me as both wrong and annoying, the line is sufficiently descriptive and well turned that one can't escape the idea that somehow it's saying something important.
I was thinking about this yesterday as I spent the gospel for the Feast of the Holy Family standing in the vestibule with a squirming, squealing 21-month-old. The facts of the Holy Family's history to not necessarily point to the uniform ease which Tolstoy seems to attribute to happy families: inexplicable pregnancy, birth under difficult conditions (and with strange visitors), fleeing death at the hands of the political authorities, Joseph's death before Jesus turned 30, etc. I hadn't thought about this before, since if anything the Holy Family often seems too distant to be much of a practical exemplar. I mean, you've got one person who's sinless, one person who's God, and even the weakest link, Joseph, always seems able to do God's will without question. And yet, most of us, if we'd gone through half the difficulties the Holy Family did would feel ourselves rather ill used.
No family, I suspect, if put under sufficient scrutiny can claim to have experience universally happy events. What makes all happy families the same is, instead, one's choice to view them happily. Similarly, what makes all unhappy families the same is one's choice to feel miserable about them. Often, the same family, with the same history and characters, is seen as happy and unhappy by different people, not necessarily just because some "came out ahead" but rather because some people choose to focus on the happy, and others on the unhappy.
One area in which this is particularly evident is in how people view their childhoods, and periods within living memory. It's a commonplace among many people right now that it was much easier for a family to make a living in the 1950s-1970s than it is now. Perhaps in some objective sense (if you were white and middle class) it was, but I suspect that most of this is that that period is currently seen through the filter of people's childhood experiences, or even their parents' childhood experiences.
My own memories of how our family situation seemed to me when I was a child clearly clash with my adult knowledge of how it took my parents ten years longer to afford a (smaller) house, my father's fears fears about his job, a city college salary that tended to grow slower than inflation, and various other forms of adversity. Parents try hard to make their children feel secure, and children have an amazing capacity to feel stable and secure, even in very difficult circumstances. Most adults lack this capacity, and so our adult experience of the world can seldom compete with our childhood experiences when it comes to a feeling of security.
Tolstoy's heroine has a family no more individual in its circumstances than most, but she has the gift of being able to be unhappy in any situation, and longing for what she does not (and arguably should not) have.
All happy families, I think, are alike in that they possess people able to be happy in them, and all unhappy families are alike in that they contain those of the opposite disposition.
ABC: Always Be Confessing
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