“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That’s the opening line to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina; but the week after Christmas is a time when I find many people reflecting on the many ways in which families may be unhappy. Perhaps it’s not surprising; we expect a lot of our families; our physical and emotional safety, a source of our own identity, values, and a sense of our place in the world; ongoing support through the various phases of our life, and so forth. And when you have many people all with different needs pulling the family in different directions… maybe it’s not surprising that there are many ways for families to be unhappy.
Many spiritual paths point us to the remedy for that unhappiness, the way in which all happy families are alike; that they are characterised by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on.
Each of those virtues could have an article of its own; but for now perhaps it’s enough to note that they are mostly other-centred. Compassion is about our ability to recognise and respond to the sufferings of others. Kindness is about our benevolence to others. Meekness is about how we respond when we find others difficult. Patience about our emotional steadiness when frustrated with others. And so on. We are to clothe ourselves with an all-encompassing loving attitude to others, one which in every situation seeks the good of others in ways which enable the family to function well.
Now this doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour. It’s not healthy to ignore ongoing mistreatment. But it’s about how we choose to respond, so that we can put proper boundaries in place, end bad behaviour… and then forgive and move on, not letting old conflicts hamper us indefinitely.
May the new year help you find – and create – happiness in your family.