My home is a capricious dalliance between sanctuary and penitentiary. The invisible, outside world, where one imagines germs and viruses and microbes floating within the yellow sheath of pollen; wear a mask and gloves, keeping barriers and distance, protect yourself, protect others, 200,000 people may die. The visible, inside world where grandbabies replace cries with screams, they pick up, touch, move, and hide everything, play games to see who can slam the door the loudest, and get food everywhere, while the dogs are faithful custodians of the floor. Then there’s the father who disciplines with a marine’s larynx, plays roughhouse and tickle riots, demands clean plates and lavishes his children with my ice cream. My house: a flight of stairs no longer separates above from below and walls no longer categorize inside from outside. When Bart Simpson was asked for an example of a paradox he said, “Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t.” I get it Bart, I do.
I’ve seen your Facebook post and your Instagram feed. Oh, the family time. The bliss of coming together as a family, supporting one another, helping each other, the reacquaintances, and gorgeous, highly functional pictures going out to social media with well-behaved dogs and cats to boot. Even here in the midst of a pandemic, the family, the mysterious adhesive that is real in the same way the air that fills my lungs is real, furnishes sanity, stability, and solace.
That same family, though, cedes irritation, inquietude, even injury a hundred times more. How many days has it been? How many more? Can we make it? Is it humanly possible? These people, these people with whom you live, the ones who can’t wash a dish, the grouchy attitudes that snarl and snap at everything because teenage maturity turns wine into vinegar, the perfumers of fermented gym clothes, the paragons of squalor, the reluctant flushers, the sofa saddled loafers, the fridge plunders. Oh, it goes on. Can we be a nuclear family without going nuclear?
The Buddha was almost right when he said, “Life is suffering.” What he should’ve said is, “Family life is suffering.”
When will you break and join the hairy-on-the-heels protesters demanding liberation? How much can you stand? When will you turncoat and join the red-hatted trumpescites? The immoral and anti-intellectual kamakazi who stand armed on state capitals, they’re banging on the door, screaming, “Let us out, Let us out, now!” How long before we join them? When will we toast their efforts with ice cold bleach?
There’s something called Stockholm Syndrome, which I know nothing about other than what I gather watching TV. Apparently, it works like this, you are kidnapped or taken hostage. Over that time you empathize with your abductor. Maybe you even fall in love with your captor. Whatever else Stockholm Syndrome is, it converts you over to the hostage-taker’s side.
When does that happen when you’re trapped in the house with squealing babies? When does that happen when living with your family is like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole? That’s what I want to know? How many tears? How many tantrums? How many hot dog flights across the room before I come to love the noise, the mess, the fresh scent of an unchanged diaper? And what happened to all my forks and spoons? Where did they go? How do you lose silverware? I don’t know. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and live through today again.
Then I go and look at the post you just made. Oh, how terrific. Your house looks so clean, quiet, restful. Everyone smiles at your house. And look there, in the background, there on the end table, is that a picture of Alex P. Keaton? Even the dog wipes his feet before bedtime at your house.
Here’s what I want you to know about your perfect family. You may look like The Brady Bunch or Full House, or maybe you’re a little grungier like Married with Children, but in the end, it is always the same story. Everyone’s happy. Everyone rallies together for the sake of the family. In the end, your family always cares about each individual.
So, congratulations on having the perfect family. But my family, my family is a biblical family. And when I say a biblical family with biblical values, I’m not talking about something Focus on the Family would be proud of. James Dobson wouldn’t endorse a biblical family, if he ever really knew what that was.
My family knows what it was like for Hagar to be tossed aside by Sarah. My family knows what it was like for Noah to curse one-third of his family. Maybe we aren’t as bad as Adam and Eve’s children, Cain murdering his brother and all, but we know what it is like to have a child removed from the paradise of high school because she’s a bully. Maybe this isn’t as bad as stealing your brother’s birthright, but we know what it’s like to have a child go to jail because of a little thing called breaking and entering. And when Mary and Joseph realized they had left their child, the Son of God and savior of the world, behind on a road trip, the embarrassment they felt was probably a wee bit more than we felt when the police delivered our daughter home after “some really great time” she had with her friends. Or maybe that time when Lot told an angry mob of rapist they could have their way with his daughters, yeah, maybe that’s a good deal worse than having a son sneak out of the house, “borrow” a pickup truck, and wrap the pickup around a telephone pole. So maybe we aren’t the picture of a perfect biblical family, but we’re a lot closer to it than the pictures on Facebook!
So, if you’re like me, like someone in a biblical family, here’s a bit of good news. The fact that you grind your teeth at night, want to pull your hair out, the very fact that having biblical family values put you closer to murdering your family rather than loving your family, the good news is that God is capable of handling homicidal, enraged prayers that keep your worst inclinations from manifesting as sirens and flashing lights, television cameras, and handcuffs. That’s the power of prayer.