Some days ago one of my roommates brought a book home about the American Civil War. When I did some research about it, I found out that I had already read the book during my youth, as the book was an updated version of The Blue And The Gray, only even larger (apparently). There are people who spent money for the book and were a bit upset that they were getting a slightly updated book with a new cover and a new name rather than an entirely new book of sources. I wasn’t upset, as I don’t mind having another version of the book in my library, even if I don’t think it needed a new name to lure the unaware.
When I was a child, the first aspect of history I became interested in was the American Civil War. From the very beginning I was at least vaguely aware of the relationship between the Civil War and my own family. This relationship is a complicated one. On the historical level, I have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, one who died fairly early in the war . I have written a fair amount about the Civil War as well, as I have been a part of a divided family, a divided society, and many divided institutions. Over and over again I have seen the same sorts of problems and the same sorts of struggles, like living a slightly odd version of the movie Groundhog Day.
The United States before the American Civil War was like a family. It was a very dysfunctional family, in many ways as dysfunctional as it is now. It was filled with squabbling people fighting over money and power, arguing over openness and transperency (or the lack thereof) and upset over politics. In short, it was like many dysfunctional families, eventually turning its war of words into a real war because feelings got hurt and people were unable to deal in a civil and rational manner, much less a loving manner, with others who should have been friends and allies and partners.
This is not an isolated problem, but one that I have seen over and over and over again in a variety of contexts. For example, Pat Monahan, the lead singer of Train, once said in a documentary about the band that he considered his band to be family because you were allowed to hate your family. Says who? The Bible is quite clear, in 1 John 4:20, that if you claim that you love God, whom you cannot see, but do not love your brother, whom you can see, you are a liar and the truth is not in you. Far from being allowed to hate family, the commands for love and respect start at home and spread outward from there. We learn how to behave in society at large from what we learn in the home, and quite frankly that thought terrifies me often.
Why is it so easily for our family to become enemies? For one, we do not choose our blood relatives. We are close to them, and they are close to us, whether we like it or not. Through years of practice they can build up grievances and offenses, and learn how to push our buttons if they are so inclined. While we generally are willing to cut slack to strangers and develop friendships over common interests, we expect our family to automatically act in ways that we will recognize as loving and respectful and automatically not act in ways that bother us. We expect carte blanche to correct and rebuke them without giving them any allowance while making unreasonable demands upon them in return. We show our worst faces to those who are closest to us, and willfully misunderstand them because we do not bother to get to know them as others do, because we assume that we already know them well enough not to dig deeper or to show them the same charity and consideration we grant willingly to friends, acquaintances, and total strangers.
A large part of our problems in families, whether they be in the smaller scale of the nuclear or extended family or the larger sphere of institutions and societies, is that we fail to understand a simple truth: if we desire to think well of a person, we will treat them well. All too often we fail to treat others well unless we think well of them, and those who get on our nerves often are not likely to be thought of very nicely. If we treat others poorly, we have to imagine in our heads that they deserve the poor treamtent. Those who are close to us are always doing little things that we can easily magnify into massive problems, and often do things that are seriously bothersome to us simply because they have different worldviews, different perspectives, and different personalities. In such a situation it is easy to be offended if you want to be.
If you don’t want to be offended, though, you cannot really do anything about other people. Instead, we ought to work on the only person we can work on–ourselves. If we treat people nicely, we will think of them nicely. If we are kind to them, if we listen to them, if we respect them, if we forgive them, we will think well of them. We will think well of them because in our mind we must justify our good treatment of others by giving reasons. Of course, the people whom we love and respect do not deserve our love and respect. Nobody does. We don’t earn the love and respect we receive from God or anyone else either. Love and respect, though, are not about merit and worth, but rather about the free choice of a generous heart. We can always justify hatred and disrespect to others based upon some real or imagined wrongs that they have committed (and family members all too easily have very real wrongs). That said, though, if we want to treat others well or act kindly to them, we can always think of reasons to justify that as well. The choice is ours, though, whether we choose to act in love and respect, or not. And we alone or responsible and accountable for the choices that we make and for our own behavior.
My brother turns 30 today. We don’t talk. When we do talk, we don’t understand each other well or relate to each other well. I love my brother and care for him, and miss him (along with the rest of my distant family), but none of that makes it possible to get along well with someone. You can love someone and miss them when they are physically or emotionally distant, but none of that means that they will feel loved or respected. There are people whom I have only known recently met that know me better than most of my family members, and that makes me sad, that family members who ought to be close can know so much about me and not understand my heart and soul, and those who know about me only those details that I have been able to share can see my heart and soul better than my flesh and blood. Why is this so? The illusion of knowledge and understanding so often prevent the reality of it from developing. Brother ought not to be against brother at all.