Friday, September 12, 2008

Family is Overrated

Politicians, clerics, and just plain folks extol family as our most important institution.

I believe family is overrated. So many people suffer inordinately from family. Of course, there are the obvious examples:
  • Child abuse
  • Spousal abuse
  • Incest
  • Psychological abuse
But much more often, there’s less dramatic but still painful family-induced misery:

  • Other than pleasantries, your adult child refuses to speak with you.
  • Your spouse has fallen out of love with you, yet fear, inertia, and shared history preclude a dissolution. So you trudge along in your lackluster life.
  • Your parent is still trying to control or demean you even though you’re already an adult.
  • Your nine-year-old regularly screams, “I hate you, mommy!”
  • Your adult child is back on your sofa still trying to “find himself” (with the assistance of drugs or alcohol.)
  • You're not capable enough to compete with a sibling or parent, which dispirits you.
  • You make major efforts to care for your aging parent, motivated mainly by guilt. Privately, you resent how much time, energy, and money it takes.
  • Your spouse doesn’t earn enough income or do enough around the house.
  • You suffer the effects of an impaired, alcoholic, drug-abusing, gambling, or just plain lazy and parasitic family member.

Millions of people don't even speak with a family member. Millions more spend years and fortunes on therapists, trying to undo the ills that family perpetrated on them.

All this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, unlike with friends, we are placed in our family of origin at random, with no say in the matter. We do choose our spouse, but hormones seem to preclude our doing a very good job of it--witness the 50% divorce rate.

While it’s unseemly to discuss, money is part of the equation as we evaluate whether family is overrated. It costs a fortune to support kids, let alone a stay-at-home spouse. To pay for it, many people choose lucrative careers that are far less enjoyable than those they’d otherwise choose. Do you think that, if it weren’t for the need to support a family, as many people would choose to sell insurance, be pest control workers, sewer repairers, or bond traders? Wouldn’t many of them choose a career, for example, in the creative arts, in a nonprofit, or as a computer game maker?

Of course, I can envision some readers thinking:

What? Are you advocating a society without children? Encouraging my readers to think more carefully before having children is hardly going to lead to a world without children. I am merely asking people to be more circumspect, not reflexively fulfilling society's expectation. Besides, environmentalists argue that overpopulation is the greatest threat to the environment. A few less children wouldn’t hurt the world and its seven billion people.

Life is even more difficult to live without the support of family. I’m not saying that people don’t need support. I’m arguing against the automatic assumption that you have greater obligation to support family members than others. For example, when your ne’er-do-well sibling asks you for money because he or she is unemployed, rather than succumb to the reflexive guilt that society imposes because “he’s family,” you'd be wise to view the issue in fuller dimension: in terms of the net effects on you, him, your family, and, yes, society. For example, does giving Sammy the Slug the money yield a greater net good than, for example, investing in a startup developing a drug to prevent sudden heart attack, the leading killer?

My main message is to resist automatically succumbing to convention, and instead, to make your choices consciously, based on what will ultimately yield the greatest good en toto: for you, your family, and society.


Anonymous said...

What makes America unique is its vast size and the high mobility of its people. Air travel has made Americans more mobile than ever. Orange and grey U-haul trucks are one of the most recognized vehicles on US roads. Young graduates go where the jobs are. So I think family ties and traditions have given way to other 'gods' and preoccupations. Allan Bloom points to the fact that social security, retirement funds and health insurance for old people free their kids from having to give them financial support, let alone taking them into their own homes to live. Likewise, parents can cut the apron strings once their kids finish high school, trade school, or college.

Americans today can live in the North, South, East, West. If you live in tiny Liechtenstein or the tribalist Democratic Republic of the Congo, where are you going to go? You're stuck, even if you are not routed in family and age old tradition.

Also, Americans are under far less pressure to marry than those of past generations. And an individual can embrace religion or he can be an atheist.

For Bloom, there is nothing holding an individual back. "They are not cold-hearted; the substance of their interests lies merely elsewhere. Spiritually, the family was pretty empty, anyway, and new objects fill their field of vision as the old ones fade."

Family connections are no longer vital.

Anonymous said...

We have become preoccupied with ourselves, which for Bloom, is not necessarily a good and desirable thing because of the effects such an existence has on the formation and sustainablity of relationships in general.

Here's another quote from Bloom -

"This indeterminate or open-ended future and the lack of a binding past mean that the souls of young people are in a condition like that of the first men in a state of nature -- spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone."

Bloom, 'The Closing of the American Mind' (1987)

Marty Nemko said...

I would argue that our first obligation is to the world, second to ourselves, third, to our spouse, fourth to our close friends--the latter two categories being people we've chosen to care about rather than family members, which have been thrust upon us against our will.

Anonymous said...

I agree, but how can an individual make any justification for a civic existence when old sentimental/feel good attachments of religion, family and country are largely absent in society?

Puritan America was a common project. Today, America is a framework in which people are simply individuals. There is no compelling force or rhyme or reason to do anything for anybody, unless there is something in it for the individual himself. Live and let live. For the Puritans, America was about being a part of something much larger than themselves. Today, Americans are only about themselves -- their individual selves

How can we have any sense of obligation to the world with this mindset?

Marty Nemko said...

Good question, dear Dave. Here's how I'd respond:

Consciously or unconsciously, most thinking people realize that being told that their primary obligation is to their family or their country is not based on merit: People are randomly assigned to both family and country. (Of course, some people change citizenships, but they are relatively few. Even those that do, such as Mexican immigrants, normally feel as much allegiance to their home country as their new one.) So, most people's motivation to serve family and country aren't, in reality, as strong as the family advocates (e.g., James Dobson) or flag wavers would have us believe. If a thinking person is to be motivated by serving something not chosen by them: serving the world is more justifiable, less jingoistic, and certainly a loftier goal.

And now, turning to whether people are motivated heavily to serve a deity. Again, the true believers, the fundamentalists, will be so motivated. But most thinking people, certainly the agnostics and atheists and even many thinking people who are members of religion, have significant doubts about the existence of a God, let alone one that is all-seeing and all powerful. As I've written before, no thinking person can unquestioningly believe such a God exists in the face of so much tragedy that is not humankind's fault: for example, the billions of people who die of the often horrifically painful cancer. I believe thinking people are more likely to be motivated by serving the world, their profession, and the people they've chosen: spouse and friends. We're all more motivated by what we choose than what is forced upon us.

Anonymous said...

What would people say about families, religion, or anything universally deemed good if we were honest with ourselves, if we truly thought for ourselves?

I have no doubt that there are people that honestly love, and like, their families. But if we thought for ourselves more, I don't think many of us would buy it.

Most of us do not want to think for ourselves. Thinking, and confronting what we find when we think, is often not easy or quick. So if the prevailing belief is that family is wonderful, how long and how many people will it take for that to reverse?

Marty Nemko said...

Anonymous, I don't think society will be devaluing family any time soon. At best, perhaps a few readers of this blog post will reprioritize.

Anonymous said...

In addition to peer pressure (you're 30, 40...and not married? What's wrong with you?), many of us are compelled to marry and start families for existential reasons. We perceive our mortality and have a fear of "dying alone." These societal, psychological, and hormonal forces together make it exceedingly difficult to enter marriage clear eyed. Thus, is there any surprise so many families are dysfunctional?

I am 34 and have yet to find my soul mate. I won't settle until I do, and if I don't, I will consider myself lucky to have lived in, compared to the rest of human history, a Golden Age. I plan on using my energy to serve the Common Good and making our society a little more civil and rational.

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I loved every word pf your post. I do hope you find your soul mate, but if not, that you don't succumb to societal pressure and marry someone when you believe your life would be better solo.

Andres said...

The innate desire to find a mate, procreate and provide for the future success of family members is a result of evolution. In evolutionary terms, those tribes and groups that allowed for a successful family unit were the ones that survived and flourished while those that didn't were selected out of the gene pool.

The future of mankind will be comprised of the genetic material of those who procreate. Those who don't leave any progeny will ultimately leave no genetic contribution.

To NOT procreate or NOT contribute to the future security of ones family, is to ultimately chose extinction for ones own genome. This can be a good, or bad thing, depending on ones opinion of our most fruitful populations.

Anonymous said...

I will not take abuse or be taken advantage from someone just because they are family. If I continue to live in a bad situation, it is not my family's fault, it is mine.

However, I have learned to appreciate those forced relationships - those bonds that exist for no reason except for a shared history.

My husband and I met when we were 19, and while we had similar interests, our love was very, shall we say, hormonal. As the years passed, there were times when I fantasized about leaving my marriage or walking away from my kids. But I am so glad I didn't and never will. I have learned more about myself through my commitment to my family through the stressful times than through anything else. When I tell myself that I have no other options - that I must stay with these people and make things work -I discover a resiliency and a creativity beyond anything I could imagine.

When my husband and I are in a heated argument, when we can't stand each other, there is nothing better than when he yells, "Oh yeah?...Well, I CHOOSE YOU!"

I choose you. These are the three little words that make my heart leap. We may think that it makes sense to leave, but I don't think we always know what is best. Commitment to family can keep us from being too short sighted and too impulsive.

Anonymous said...

I agree that family is overrated. For every person I know who has a great family, I know one who has a family that has stabbed them in the back. Families can be so very dysfunctional. As for children, I've never understood why people want them. Yeah, if we stopped having kids, the human race would die out. Like that's a bad thing. It's not. I'm not being nihilistic, just frank. The planet doesn't need us.

Anonymous said...

The dysfunctional family is largely an American/Northern European phenomenon, with the United States probably having some of the worst cases I have observed, along with the highest divorce rates and anti-depressant use in the world.

Family ties are *already* far weaker here than in many parts of the world where people, on the whole, appear to be happier and more content with their lot in life.

It's not family that's overrated, it's dysfunctional American families that are. Way to go secular individualism!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Grace.

Anonymous said...

A bit late in responding, but I can't help wonder Marty how you can call yourself a Libertarian, or say you are "libertarian-leaning" when you say our first obligation is to the world?? We're not supposed to care for family, but we're supposed to care for complete strangers thousands of miles a way whom we'll never see? I don't get it. You, like so many post-modern "philosophers" with way too much time on their hands, are all over the place with your rhetoric. Modern man if anything has honed the art of talking out of both sides of our mouths.

Marty Nemko said...


Yours is my favorite sort of comment to respond to.

As Longfellow wrote, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Yet I believe there is internal consistency in my reasoning. It is governed by one core principle: utilitarianism: doing the things that will do most good for the world.

In my view, time spent with family is likely to have relatively little such benefit. Family-oriented types (including many social science types) bury their heads to the reality that genetics and BASIC environment (e.g., basic nutrition, not beating the hell out of your kid--especially if it's unpredictable, and providing a merely decently stimulating environment) is the inflection point--spending time on more than those basics yields ever more insufficient benefits to the child, and importantly, to the world.

That utilitarian view leads me to conclude that a far better use of one's time is to continually strive to spend as much time as possible in the service of maximally improving the world.

That utilitarian view also leads me to the conclusion that GENERALLY, libertarian/free-market/small-government solutions will yield the greatest utility to the world. There are exceptions--for example, I THINK I believe that the greed potential of health care providers and insurers and the intrinsic right of all humans (regardless of their merit or financial contribution to the world) to have BASIC health care, leads me to conclude that a single-payer health care system would yield greater net good to the world (the utilitarian principle.) Yes, a single-payer system would create many lazier health care providers, but, from a utilitarian perspective, I judge that liability to be lesser than the greed liability intrinsic to a private-sector health care solution.

Where I have pause is between a fully free-market health care system and a single-payer system. But a free-market system is no more realistic than that the media will become balanced in its coverage.

Anon said...

You got that right. I agree with you 'cuz I feel that my folks interfere with my lifestyle.