Family is the Answer—1991
Instructions to see Larger Type
As I took my early morning swim I noticed this runner watching me from the boardwalk. Later as I toweled off on the porch he approached me and introduced himself as a reader of my column. Then he asked, "What is the lost important thing in your life?" If I were asked that question at 7 in the evening, it would draw a philosophical reply. "What is 'important'?" "What does 'life' mean?" The sort of evasions that come with a day's living with yourself and others leave me full of doubt. But at 7 in the morning, my answer was simple and direct as the newly risen day. Without hesitation, my head and heart responded, "My family." It was the absolutely certain reply of a seventysomething male who has entered the seventh stage in Erik Erikson's eight-stage life cycle. I have attained what Erikson terms "generavity." I have finally become concerned with the welfare of the next generation to come, particularly my family. Of the virtues and values I had to acquire in life, generavity was the most difficult to attain. According to Erikson this is a rule of human nature. I doubt it. For males perhaps this is true. But for women generavity is a force from the arrival of their first born. When our children arrived, I was primarily concerned with my self-development. My wife and family were part of that self only peripherally. They were in intimate association with me. I was responsive for their growth and development. But they were nevertheless external to the self I was making. In my pursuit of excellence in my profession and later in my associations, my family was relegated to a minimum of my attention and my time. There came periods when I wanted to be free from all the hassle of family life. This desire to escape and pursue some idyllic life with another person is felt by a large percentage of married men. A very good family practitioner once told me, "If all the men in this town who wanted to leave their homes did so there would be very few families with fathers." And when families remain intact, that life may be difficult. "The proper word for family is 'strife,'" writes Ortega. The family is kept intact by knowing what can be said and what can't. At times it is like walking on eggshells. This tension and its more overt manifestations has led to the concept of dysfunctional families. My own belief is that all families malfunction at one time or another. An assembly of egos in all stages of development can hardly be expected to operate friction free. My solution was to more or less absent myself from the group. In that position I was not a positive influence, but at least I wasn't a negative one. I am a loner, a person interested in ideas rather than people. I liked to have people around me, but I preferred to read a book while they were there. The antithesis of generavity is self-absorption. I was heavily involved in creativity and productivity. But I was more and more self-absorbed. The attraction of any action was what I would personally derive from it. My motivation was my own needs and satisfaction. I was late in coming to generavity which is no less than the virtue of caring. Its theological counterpart is charity. It is going beyond the self. One theologian described sin as "closing the ring of concern." I had closed it around myself. I now include many people inside the ring and am learning to open that ring more and more. Growth and the attainment of a new plateau did not come simply because I was in my late 60s. In truth it should have occurred decades back. Reaching a stage in the life cycle does not come automatically. I came to this love for my family and others through a familiar life giving force, adversity. Cancer, its attendant pain and an awareness of my isolation brought me back to a patient, loving wife and our sons and daughters. Fortune had smiled on me in giving me cancer. Pain was a key to opening up a new and larger life. The interests of my past are still present, but now finally seen in perspective. That is why I was able to answer without hesitation when a stranger asked me to put my preset life into one word - family.