Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Tolstoy, Happiness and the Holy Family

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.

5 comments:

Patrick said...

Taken at face value, Tolstoy's aphorism is indeed nonsense- on the other side from your point, there's the fact that some unhappy families are very similar. I personally took the line as a quite comic and pithy version of "Unhappy families are much more fun to read and write about than are happy families."

LogEyed Roman said...

Hee. Thanks, Patrick. Well said.

Darwin, I like your post. Good point. I truly think that happiness, especially in this world, is an attitude, not a set of circumstances. Jesus left us HIS peace, not the world's peace. His peace, peace with God, has been defined as "a union of wills between the human and God such that any conflicting will or desire cannot enter." Not a thing in there about "good circumstances" or any worldly felicity at all.

Regarding Tolstoy's aphorism, I too consider it manifest nonsense. In fact I believe the exact opposite: It's the happy families which show enormous variety and individuality. Unhappy families fall into patterns that, while always individual in expression, are in fact far fewer.

I treat psychology with suspicion, but this is something I agree with: Psychologists treating relationships have noted the same pattern: That "dysfunctional" relationships display elements of a relatively small number of patterns, while heathier relationships are the varied ones.

LogEyed Roman

Sarahndipity said...

I’ve always thought Tolstoy’s opening line wasn’t true, ever since I read Anna Karenina in tenth grade. I think Patrick is absolutely right – happy families are just no fun to write about. :) I also think you’re right that happiness is more a result of attitude than circumstance.

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.

I’d have to disagree a bit here, though. I think you’re right that many parents tend to shield their children from difficulties, and therefore many people remember their childhoods as being more secure than they may have actually been. But I really do think, overall, it was much easier to support a family in the 1950s-1970s.

Admittedly, I’m only speaking from my experience (and yes, I’m white and middle-class), but look at it this way: when may parents bought their house in 1977, it cost about 3 times their annual income. The house my husband and I bought in 2005 (in the same metro area) cost about 10 times our annual income. Housing prices are just insane these days, especially in big cities (which is where most of the jobs are).

Furthermore, in the 50s, almost everyone lived on one income. Since the feminist movement and the increase of women in the workforce, two incomes has become more the norm, so our society is structured around the assumption that both parents are working. This makes it more difficult to live on one income. My husband and I have no debt aside from our mortgage, and we still can’t afford to live on one income.

College tuition prices have also increased dramatically, and since more and more people are going to college, a college degree is becoming increasingly necessary. It used to be that a high school diploma was enough to support a family; now, a bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum. Careers that used to require a high school diploma now require a bachelor’s degree, and careers that used to require a bachelor’s require a master’s. Many people have no choice but to go into debt for their education.

I do think people also tend to be more materialistic these days, and some of their financial difficulties are of their own making (such as credit card debt, which I think can almost always be avoided). But overall, my generation has it tougher than our parents.

Darwin said...

Agreeing with everyone that Tolstoy has it almost exactly backwards: Those unhappy with their families usually feel so for one of a fairly short list of reasons; those who are happy with them do so very a perplexing diversity of reasons.

Sarahndipidy,
It would take a lot more analysis to come to any sort of concrete judgement on the question. Certainly, looking at myself and the people I graduated college with, many of us have already easily exceeded the most our parents ever earned, and it's not like we're Wall Street brokers or something. But then, we all also migrated to regions of the country where houses can still be had for 2-3x a single annual income -- while my parents dealt with the CA real estate market which had already spiralled well above that back in the early 80s when my parents were able to buy their first house (at nearly age 40).

Literacy-chic said...

So much of this has to do with what background you're coming from to begin with, and to what you aspire. Not to mention region of the country, as Darwin points out. The standards for "success" and "making ends meet" are very different where I come from than where I am living currently. I absolutely agree that attitude is what distinguishes a happy family from an unhappy family--the attitudes of family members as well as those doing the analysis. Good post!