When visiting my daughter Meredith and her husband, Dan, in Australia a few years ago and meeting my grandson Asher, I began pondering what families are and how they function. Growing government support for the freedom to marry is broadening our sense of what families look like; family vitality, on the other hand, is more a matter of how they operate and interact. Considering family life as successive stages comes from family systems theory. The basic idea is simple. All individuals’ lives evolve over their life spans as they react to certain universal developmental challenges. There are six to eight critical passages in life; one’s family can help—or hinder—successfully negotiating through each successive passage. Personal choices, of course, are critical in determining outcomes, but so are environmental issues. And no environmental issue has more effect than the life lessons and patterns of behavior learned at home.
Virginia Satir was one of the co-founders of the country’s first formal program in Family Therapy. Her treatment model emphasized personal growth instead of illness. She believed that whenever clients connected with a universal life force within them it was healing. She also believed that people should just go ahead and pursue their dreams instead of trying to figure out beforehand whether their dreams can be realized or not. Another of her axioms: “Problems are not the problem, coping is the problem.” And good coping is the result of self-worth, the rules operating within one’s family system, and links one makes to the outside world.
Family systems theory defines a family as “two or more persons who share resources, share responsibility for decisions, share values and goals, and have a commitment to one another over time.” Families differ, of course, in more ways than gender: in their cultural histories, bonds of kinship, forms of lineage, and patterns of residence, as well as in their values and beliefs. Yet, there are many commonalities, including the love of children, the need for cultural roots, and the desire for physical and financial security. As America becomes more and more diverse, ideas of what’s ‘normal’ are giving way to what works—what helps people cope—in the modern multicultural world.
Each successive task in the family life cycle requires attention. Going from toddler to student to single young adult, to a couple, to parenthood, to growing family, to launching children, to retirement. None of these transformations is easy—and never was. Letting go of the past and stepping into one’s future may be scary, but it’s also exhilarating. Each stage has its peculiar challenges. Yet all of them require dying to an earlier stage to embrace what lies ahead. Eastern religions, with their belief in reincarnation, propose that the family life cycle continues even after death, and that the same capacity to gather strength from within oneself and one’s family will help us make the final transition from life into whatever lies beyond. Among Westerners, Easter, celebrated this year on April 12, celebrates Jesus’ death and rebirth as both a model-unto-death and as a paradigm for living a healthy, integrated life on earth. Whatever happens after physical death, the fact remains that we suffer hundreds of “little deaths” throughout life. People move away, relationships transform, opportunities close up as new ones become open. Moving from year to year and from community to community as a minister, I see and experience this all the more poignantly. Healthy people find ways to accept these little deaths and to look, simultaneously, for new prospects and new opportunities in their midst—prospects and opportunities that will almost invariably be missed if you’re strung out lamenting what’s been lost. In the words of Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, “life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
Yours in faith,