The events of the past week have jarred us all. Now, I am wondering what a lot of people are wondering. How is it that a 19-year-old who is remembered from high school years as a “sociable, compassionate, friendly, wonderful kid” is drawn, seemingly out of the blue, into committing the horrible acts we have just witnessed? This, of course, is an extreme case, but raises the broader question of how to help young people enter adulthood with a strong moral compass. It’s not enough that they don’t blow things up; we need to raise a generation of people who will build a civilization based on values of justice, compassion, and universal recognition that the human race is a family.
This brings us back to our theme: our families of origin. For those who are fortunate, this is one’s very first experience of what a community should be like and how it should function. And I count myself among the fortunate ones in this respect. I grew up as the fourth of five children in a middle class suburban Catholic family. My father was a mechanical engineer who attended college during the Great Depression, paying expenses by waiting tables. My mother grew up on a farm. On paper, my background sounds pretty ordinary.
Now I’m being asked to reflect on what it was about this family that taught me about how to engage the world. Where do I begin? As always, my parents’ actions were far more important than their words. First, there was an atmosphere of unconditional love. As children, my siblings and I were always made to feel that we were intrinsically good people. And by this I don’t mean a false preoccupation with making us feel good all the time or being afraid that criticism might hurt our self-esteem. Indeed, when I made mistakes or did less-than-good things, I had to own up to it; but it was always clear that it was my action that had fallen short, not that I was inherently bad. Second, my parents cultivated a strong sense of teamwork and responsibility to the family. I never saw them quarrel; they would always discuss things in an attitude of mutual respect. On Saturday mornings the household chores would be divvied up among us all. Third, they used situations that came up in our lives as opportunities to convey their values. I remember that for a time I was kept from watching The Man From Uncle, a popular prime time spy show. My parents were disturbed by the cavalier attitude toward deadly violence on the show and expressed this to me; I’ve never forgotten this. A lot of what made my family what it was are intangible things. During a visit to my parents when I was in grad school, a friend of mine entered the living room and saw each of us doing our separate things: I was reading a book, my mother working a crossword puzzle, and so on. This friend later said to me that even though we were not doing something together, it still felt like we were together.
And now I realize that the characteristics I hope to promote in the functioning of society at large, justice, compassion, solidarity, are modeled and taught in the context of the nuclear family. This is what equips children to grow into adults who can see that a new kind of civilization is possible and who have the capacity to build it.