March 22, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     The Schiavo family tragedy, which has begotten such 
bitter national controversy, reminds us how complicated 
and vexed family matters can be. It's easy to speak 
sentimentally of "family values," as if cozy affection 
and settled morality could be taken for granted, but it 
doesn't always work out that way in our real experience.

     Often, thank heaven, it does. Let's not forget or 
belittle that. There are many happy families and, no 
matter what Tolstoy says, they aren't all alike. They may 
not be quite as dramatic as unhappy families, and they 
may not make headlines quite as often, but under scrutiny 
they can be every bit as interesting.

     In recent years psychologists have begun to study 
happiness for a change. Psychology has generally been the 
study of pathologies and abnormalities -- failure, in a 
word -- but now it's turning its attention to happy and 
successful people. That study should include families 
that don't wind up in court, jail, or angry memoirs.

     Still, close kinship is no guarantee of bliss, and 
it's foolish to pretend otherwise. C.S. Lewis once wrote 
that the Victorian sentimentalization of the family 
produced the reaction of a "savage" anti-family 
literature in Ibsen, Shaw, Samuel Butler, and just about 
every early modernist novel you can name; one thinks of 
P.G. Wodehouse's unsparing realism about aunts.

     This reaction wasn't confined to literature. It's 
still with us, in the form of "sexual revolution" for 
instance. Today, in an inversion of Victorian 
sentimentalism, one gets the impression that the only 
happy marriages are those of same-sex couples. Among the 
rest of us, the fatherless household has become virtually 
normal. As Ellis Cose has observed, the problems observed 
in the black family a generation ago now afflict white 
families with similar frequency. Should that surprise us?

     From the Greeks to Shakespeare to the Russian novel 
to Tennessee Williams, literature and drama have dealt 
with the most embarrassing (white) family secrets. And 
the remarkable thing is how close to the bone they can 
get. When you watch King Lear make a horrible fool of 
himself and tear his family apart with his crazy demands, 
you don't feel you're watching some incomprehensible 
stranger. If he doesn't remind you of your own dad, you 
may have an uncle just like him.

     I recently caught up with a family I used to be 
close to but hadn't seen in decades. These people, all 
lovable, aren't speaking to each other anymore. It's sad, 
even heart-piercing, but not that unusual. You don't 
really know a family, sometimes, until you know things 
about them you wish you didn't.

     The Schiavo case also reminds us what has become of 
marriage. We used to think you had to stick it through in 
sickness and in health, but soon we may have to amend 
wedding vows to take into the account the option of 
pulling the plug. Isn't relieving oneself of an unwanted 
spouse a fundamental human right? Michael Schiavo, Robert 
Blake, Scott Peterson -- sure, we may disapprove of their 
methods, but don't we all know where they're coming from?

     Such men show that conjugal love isn't 
unconditional; at least not always, or not for long. Men 
may abandon their children, but they seldom want them 
dead. Even the man who kills his wife may still adore the 
kids she gave him. It's Terri Schiavo's parents who want 
her to live.

     Comedy rings down the curtain just when everyone is 
about to get married and live happily ever after. Tragedy 
shows what may actually happen afterward, when Othello 
and Desdemona get around to setting up housekeeping and 
discover each other's little quirks. Soon the neighbors 
are talking, and finally Verdi is writing an opera. From 
romance to family squabbles to La Scala -- you never know 
where it will lead.

     But OTELLO is a worst-case scenario. In spite of 
everything, there are still happy families, and even 
husbands who stand by their hopelessly ailing wives to 
the bitter end. In fact, these are the norm we should be 
paying more close attention to.

     The beleaguered and battered family still exists, 
and it still manages to produce healthy children. It has 
even survived all of our enlightened modern society's 
determined attempts to reform it. That's because modern 
society knows when something is working wrong, but hasn't 
a clue when, or why, it's working right.


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