The family may fairly be considered, one would think, an ultimate human institution.
Not only, as some would say, because it is “peaceful, pleasant, and at one,” but because it is often quite the opposite. Unlike with our friends and acquaintances, with family we don’t get to choose. We think of the cosmopolitan, travelling to four corners of the world, choosing what he does, who he sees, with whom he spends time, how he spends time. The provincial has much of this chosen for him:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.
In a big society, we can form cliques. We can choose, and the field from which we can choose is as large as we make our circle – even as large as the entire world, for those whose reach is almost unlimited. Hence, the big society forms narrowness. Those who live in a big society are free to associate with – or not associate with – whomever they choose. Mostly, people just like them.
If we were to-morrow 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.
Our neighbors. Yet this is the world from which the modern has decided to escape. He invents modern culture and modern imperialism; he goes off on wild adventures. He is fleeing from his street, not, as he claims, because it is too dull, but because it is too interesting.
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour.
We are not told to find random people to love; we are told to love our neighbor. We don’t get to choose our neighbor; he is chosen for us. We are told to love him because he is there, right next to us, without our doing or choosing.
Instead, the modern goes to the four corners, thinking that he is finding people much different than himself. Instead, he is finding others who are quite like him – who just happen to speak a different primary language.
…if what he wants is people different from himself, he had much better stop at home and discuss religion with the housemaid. …if he wants to conquer something fundamentally and symbolically hostile and also very strong, he had much better remain where he is and have a row with the rector.
So, returning to the family. It is to be commended for precisely this reason – the same reason that the institution of the nation or the city are to be commended: they all force him to contend, not with something outside, but something inside. Do unto others – not others of your own choosing, but others chosen for you. If that doesn’t force you to contend with your inside, nothing will.
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.
Step out of this, and you step into a narrower world. The cosmopolitan is not broadening his horizons, he is limiting them; he is not growing, he is shrinking. He is suffering a delusion.
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.
And the day our children were born, and the day we moved to a new neighborhood, or our new neighbors moved in. It is romantic because it is random, because it is arbitrary. Life can only be a story if a great portion of it is “settled for us without our permission.” Would we want the author to come out on stage and ask us to tell him how the next act should go? Does that make a story?
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.
It would be easy to point to Jesus here. Instead, I will point to one of the hundreds of examples that man invented as a poor facsimile: Tony Stark wasn’t a hero because of what he could control; he was a hero because of what he could not control.
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.
The mistake of the moderns, as Chesterton puts it, is to believe that life is at its most romantic in a complete state of liberty. They are after a world of no limitations.
They say they wish to be, as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves.
To really feel the joy in life
You must suffer through the pain
Until you struggle through the dark
You'll never know that you're alive
- Illumination Theory, Dream Theater
You can fight
Without ever winning
But never ever win
Without a fight
- Resist, Rush
Or you can make the universe as weak as you are. But from which type of man will the foundations of liberty be built? The weak cosmopolitan, or the strong provincial?