Thanksgiving and the Uncongenial Family

Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States; and, for it, I am re-posting the following essay from last year with some edits. May you all have a beautiful Thanksgiving surrounded by your lovely uncongenial family. ~SCF

“If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.”  -G.K. Chesterton

In the United States we are gearing up to celebrate the holiday known as Thanksgiving. This holiday entails cooking and serving a large turkey with various sides to our extended families. It sounds lovely, and it is, but it does happen that family-related dramas ensue when this hereditary based group is placed in one house, under one roof, for a period of three-four days, and this is not a cause for alarm. It does not mean that your family is odd, or hopelessly doomed. It simply means that it is a family, and by nature the family is uncongenial (G.K. Chesterton, paraphrase): the family is bracing because it is a gathering of men who hold divergent thoughts, and are people we cannot control and force to believe what we believe, or think like we do. This bracing quality of the family is often denigrated by those who wish to destroy the family, the primary social unit of any high functioning society, the basis of a Catholic society, but it is precisely the bracing quality of the family that produces persons of strong character. God created the family, and it is good. It is not perfect, not because of how God made this unit of life, but because people are not perfect; but that is the romantic side of it, the part of life that we cannot control, the adventure of living is found in places we least expect it, within our own homes.

The English Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, wrote an essay about the family titled, Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family, in his book, Heretics. In this essay, he described how the family was under constant attack; and he died in 1936, so I cannot imagine what he would say about the state of the family today; and though the essay is a bit long, I think it is worth a read as it will cause you to think again about your hereditary based group which, as Chesterton said, is like a romantic little kingdom which is always in a state approaching anarchy; rightfully so, as it is a kingdom composed of men (Chesterton, paraphrase). Dale Alquist of the American Chesterton Society wrote this on Chesterton’s views, and writings, on the family:

It can be argued that the family stands at the center of all the current controversies in politics and morality or what some are calling the Culture Wars. The institution of the family has come under a ferocious attack from a number of quarters and is being stoutly defended by equally vigorous individuals and groups. But the interesting thing about all this is Chesterton’s defense of the family.

Chesterton’s entirely original approach to the question of the family was based on the seemingly paradoxical notion that the great thing about family life is that it requires us to give up control over our lives, which is to say give up our freedom. Yes, Chesterton says that too much freedom (too much control ) is boring.

A great part of life should be settled for us without our permission. This may be a nuisance if we want life to be a system. But it is essential if we want life to be a drama.

Here Chesterton is attacking the modernist notion that connects happiness with something called “liberty” and unhappiness with something called “limitation.” But the idea of perfect freedom and escape from all limitations is a delusion. Liberty, Chesterton argued, is merely the right to choose between one set of limitations and another. It is limitations, he wrote, that create “all the poetry and variety of life.”  

The family ideal Chesterton was defending cannot be equated with the industrialized consumer family, where the family members leave the home each morning by the clock and on a strict schedule to pursue careers, education, recreation, and so on. Chesterton’s ideal was the productive home with its creative kitchen, its busy workshop, its fruitful garden, and its central role in entertainment, education, and livelihood. Unlike the industrial home, life in a productive household is not amenable to scheduling and anything but predictable.

And for further reading in Chesterton’s works, see “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” in Heretics, “The Drift from Domesticity” in The Thing and “The Story of the Family” in The Superstition of Divorce.  source

Chesterton said the following in his essay, On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family:

The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy. It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world. They are dismayed and terrified by the largeness and variety of the family. Sarah wishes to find a world wholly consisting of private theatricals; George wishes to think the Trocadero a cosmos. I do not say, for a moment, that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual, any more than I say the same thing about flight into a monastery. But I do say that anything is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own. The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is everything that its enemies call it. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there. So long as you have groups of men chosen rationally, you have some special or sectarian atmosphere. It is when you have groups of men chosen irrationally that you have men. The element of adventure begins to exist; for an adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose. Falling in love has been often regarded as the supreme adventure, the supreme romantic accident. In so much as there is in it something outside ourselves, something of a sort of merry fatalism, this is very true. Love does take us and transfigure and torture us. It does break our hearts with an unbearable beauty, like the unbearable beauty of music. But in so far as we have certainly something to do with the matter; in so far as we are in some sense prepared to fall in love and in some sense jump into it; in so far as we do to some extent choose and to some extent even judge–in all this falling in love is not truly romantic, is not truly adventurous at all. In this degree the supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

This colour as of a fantastic narrative ought to cling to the family and to our relations with it throughout life. Romance is the deepest thing in life; romance is deeper even than reality. For even if reality could be proved to be misleading, it still could not be proved to be unimportant or unimpressive. Even if the facts are false, they are still very strange. And this strangeness of life, this unexpected and even perverse element of things as they fall out, remains incurably interesting. The circumstances we can regulate may become tame or pessimistic; but the “circumstances over which we have no control” remain god-like to those who, like Mr. Micawber, can call on them and renew their strength. People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, “to be continued in our next.” If we have sufficient intellect, we can finish a philosophical and exact deduction, and be certain that we are finishing it right. With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery, and be certain that we were finishing it right. But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right. That is because a story has behind it, not merely intellect which is partly mechanical, but will, which is in its essence divine. The narrative writer can send his hero to the gallows if he likes in the last chapter but one. He can do it by the same divine caprice whereby he, the author, can go to the gallows himself, and to hell afterwards if he chooses. And the same civilization, the chivalric European civilization which asserted freewill in the thirteenth century, produced the thing called “fiction” in the eighteenth. When Thomas Aquinas asserted the spiritual liberty of man, he created all the bad novels in the circulating libraries.

But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we like very little. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent. They fail to feel adventures because they can make the adventures. The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important. Hence it is misunderstood by the moderns, who imagine that romance would exist most perfectly in a complete state of what they call liberty. They think that if a man makes a gesture it would be a startling and romantic matter that the sun should fall from the sky. But the startling and romantic thing about the sun is that it does not fall from the sky. They are seeking under every shape and form a world where there are no limitations–that is, a world where there are no outlines; that is, a world where there are no shapes. There is nothing baser than that infinity. They say they wish to be, as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.

“To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.”


So, do enjoy your Aunt Sue who doesn’t care for cranberries, and wishes to make that point very clear to you in a long drawn out exposition on the history of the use of cranberries in food embellishment; and do not whine when your brother, Bill, is not interested in your latest project at work; or your cousin, Cecilia, wishes to grab your attention by beginning to put up your Christmas decorations, because she simply must be a help wherever she goes!  

That is the family, and yes, it is uncongenial: it is a little kingdom verging on anarchy, but it is the most romantic institution in the world. It is where God has placed you and I; and it is our duty to get along in that world in order to be a member of the race of men (G.K. Chesterton, paraphrase).

The entire Chesterton essay on the family may be read here: link.

So, why did I write about this? Because we are constantly inundated with false ideas of the family (think the Hallmark channel).  So, when our family, our marriage, our children, do not walk about with plastered smiles speaking platitudes, and complimenting us, ad nauseaum, we might grow alarmed, and think all is lost, but it is then that we must remember the wisdom of Fr. Brown, aka, G.K. Chesterton; and note that our families are, indeed, uncongenial, and that is the nature of a family. We must get about our day: taking up our beads, serving the turkey, stoking the proverbial fire, and staying at our duty, no matter what.

May your Thanksgiving be adventurous, and may you meet it with strength and vitality!