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The Myth of the Normal Family: Healthy People Make Friends, Not Enemies

We were visiting with our younger son Sam on the phone the other day. He’s getting married this summer and we were discussing his wedding plans. I asked him who his groomsmen were going to be, and he said his brother Spencer, a cousin, then said two other names, neither of which I recognized. When I asked him who they were, he said friends he’d met in the Army. It was an interesting moment, because when Sam lived at home, I made it a point to know all his friends, and now that he’s out in the world, 500 miles from home, there’s no way I can know all his friends. I began to wonder about them. Were they nice people? Did they conduct themselves responsibly? Did they like Donald Trump? A loving, attentive father needs to know these things. I asked Sam, “Are they good guys?” And Sam said, “No, they’re terrible human beings. That’s why I want them in my wedding.” He has his mother’s saucy attitude.

After we hung up, I had two feelings. My first feeling was one of sadness. From now on, I will probably never know my son’s friends. Those days are over. We will likely always live at a distance, because of his vocation. So unless Joan and I pick up our things and follow our son around the globe, I’ll never know his friends, and that made me sad. If someone is important to my children, they are, by extension, important to me, and I’d like to know them.

But the second feeling I had was one of deep joy. My son has friends. My son has people who love him, people he loves, people with whom he wants to share the happiest, most meaningful moments of his life. He has people he can trust, people he can laugh with, people he can support, who can also support him. To know my son has friends is a wonderful feeling, because I’ve known people who, for any number of reasons, never had a friend.

Last week, I spoke about the myth of the normal family. I said, with my tongue only slightly in my cheek, that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it. I do not believe this dysfunction is a result of original sin. I thoroughly reject that doctrine. We are not born in sin. Rather, I believe we are born immature, and that all our life is a quest for maturity and wholeness, of moving from immaturity to maturity. I also said that to the degree we remain immature, our capacity for meaningful relationships, happiness, and growth is compromised. I ended by saying I wanted to spend these next several weeks describing what a life of maturity and wholeness looks like.  Today, I want to say this: Healthy, mature people, as they move out into the world, make friends, not enemies.

If, as we go through life, we accumulate a growing list of enemies, a growing list of people we do not love, people we do not trust, we must consider the possibility that the problem is not our enemy’s brokenness, but our own. Healthy, mature people make friends, not enemies.

When I was a kid, my mom bought me a book of stories that had been collected from around the world. I’ve forgotten most of the stories, except for one. It was set in Africa, but could have happened anywhere.

A farmer was working in his fields and a man walked by and said, “I’m new to this area. Can you tell me what the people are like?”

The farmer asked him what the people were like where he had lived before.

“They were hateful and untrustworthy. I didn’t like any of them,” the man said.

“You’ll find that people here are just the same,” the farmer said.

The next day, another man stopped by. He too had just moved to the area and wanted to know what the people were like.

“What were they like where you lived before?” the farmer asked.

“They were kind and helpful. I’ll miss them a great deal,” the man said.

“Don’t you worry,” the farmer said, “the people here are the exact same.”

We see in others what is present in ourselves. If we encounter enemy after enemy, if everyone inevitably, invariably disappoints us, we must consider our own complicity in our failed relationships. Healthy, mature people make friends, not enemies. Joan and I have joked that if Sam and Spencer had been dropped in a foreign land as children, Spencer would have built them a house by nightfall and Sam would have filled it with friends.

Did you happen to view the Ted Talk we sent out on e-mail this week, about an 80-year study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development? And what they’ve discovered, quoting from the Harvard Gazette, is that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”  The current director of that study put it simply.  “Loneliness kills.”

We’ve known this since we first crawled out of the primordial soup. What was the first observation God made in the creation stories? Remember that? The first observation was that creation was good. Forget that nonsense about us being born into sin. “Behold, God looked at what she had birthed and said, “It is good.”  What was the second observation? “It is not good for people to be alone.” I know sometimes it’s hard to believe in God, but surely you can believe in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, can’t you?  It is not good for us to be alone.  Healthy people make friends, not enemies.

If this is true for individuals, it is doubly true for cultures. Any culture bent on creating enemies is destined for misery. Any culture that denigrates and diminishes the other and the different is simultaneously destroying its own life, its own capacity for happiness. We’ll know we have matured as a nation, as a world, when we speak of “we” not “them.”

Madeline came over yesterday to see us and brought all her dolls-her Barbies, her Frozen characters, and a few miscellaneous dolls.  She must have had twenty or so dolls. She emptied all of them out onto the kitchen window seat into a big pile, just as I was walking by. I immediately, without thought, kneeled down beside her and began organizing them into groups—a Frozen group, a Barbie group, a dolls-that-annoy-me group, a Samaritan group, a leper group, a people of color group, a dolls-I’m-afraid group, a Russian group, an inmates group, a gay and lesbian group, a mentally ill group, an undocumented immigrants group. You know what I mean, the customary ways we divide and categorize people.

So I was sorting away and Madeline swept them all together in one great pile and said, “No, Papa. They all live together.”

The impulse to divide, to assemble like with like, to include some and reject others, will be our undoing. Mature, happy people make friends, not enemies. They know a great and ancient truth, that it is not good for us to be alone.