A New Look at Family Values

Conservative politicians and preachers frequently say that the health of society is a symptom of marriage and family health. For them, marriage and family are the foundation of everything else. Class tension, racial strife, and tribal conflict are both the sign and fallout of dysfunction at that primary level.

I’m not sure the politicians and preachers would agree with that last statement, as I will try to explain.

“Family values” has been the banner under which many conservative campaigns, as well as conservative crusades, have been organized.

By definition, conservatives are advocates for cultural institutions, traditions, and customs that “conserve” our connection to the past and the stability it offers. The past is a country that we know; it is familiar, or at least fondly remembered. As we also know, it can be a construct we imagine nostalgically, but that never really was.

Especially when the present is confusing and the future uncertain, keeping an anchor line to things and ways that have been around for a while can provide the security, identity, and orientation we feel we need.

I fully agree with the argument regarding the influence of marriage and family health on the general health of society. Of course, we should go even deeper, into the wellbeing of individuals, since every partnership and relational system is affected, for good or ill, by what individuals bring to it.

But then, what is meant by “family values”? The values, judgments, attitudes, and mores that parents happen to teach and model for their children? Or are they the values, priorities, practices, and commitments that create strong families, partnerships, and communities?

It should be the latter, but too often the “family values” espoused by conservative politicians and preachers are built on ethnocentrism, where the interests of the in-group are set against the needs, values, rights and happiness of outsiders.

Some of this in-group favoritism and out-group suspicion is a natural and evolved preference for the company, resources, and protection provided by one’s own kin and kind.

But when the democratic principles of liberty, equality, and inclusion pull on those like-kind and like-minded boundaries, conservative resistance can lift the banner of “family values” as a defensive maneuver, which can quickly take the offensive – and then become offensive to democratic vision and values.

Instead of finding a way forward, together, they actively undermine democracy and sabotage its progress.

In this post I will guide a meditation on “family values,” in the higher cultural and democratic sense. Not as defensive of in-group identity or offensive against out-group difference, but as creative of the healthy relationships that our democratic future depends on.

In the background of my diagram is the image of a Möbius band or infinity symbol, meant to convey the idea of “power” and “love” as dynamically distinct virtues which are paradoxically one. Around the two virtues are arranged my version of family values or “a family of values,” priorities and commitments that are essential to the strength, health, growth, and longevity of any relationship.

At the center of this family of values is trust, which is effectively the bond and balancing point of Power and Love.

Without trust, a relationship has nothing to hold it together. As the centering value of a healthy relationship, it is a function of each partner’s own centered power and of their shared, connected love. When partners are not centered in themselves, they cannot connect from positions of inner security and strength, and their effort at connecting tends to be more about codependency and manipulation than genuine love.

On the “power” side of this balance are three more values, each one reflecting an important dimension of Power and helping us understand the virtue of Power more holistically.

Faith should not be confused here with religious belief or the willingness to believe something “you know ain’t so,” as Mark Twain quipped. We are using it in its original sense, as an individual’s inner release or surrender to the grounding mystery of Being. It is neither cognitive, intellectual, nor orthodox, and has really nothing directly to do with what we believe about one thing or another.

Because faith is deeper than words or concepts can reach, and because our need to know intuitively that reality is provident exists prior to the acquisition of language and formal thought, faith is properly regarded as mystical or ineffable (beyond words).

Integrity is how this deeper dynamic of inner release to the grounding mystery of reality arises into a centered personality, which is why it is also called “ego integrity.” It’s still important, however, to distinguish this center of ego integrity from the question of social identity, of “who I am” in terms of the roles we play in the role-play of relationships.

As mentioned earlier, an individual’s personal integrity is what conveys the centering virtue of Power to the dynamic of trust in a healthy relationship.

Agency refers to our individual sense of self-control, creative influence, and personal responsibility. When we accept and embrace our agency, we are embracing our ability to make things happen as well as accepting the consequences of our actions. A lack of agency translates into an inability to make commitments, along with an unwillingness to accept responsibility for how our words and behavior affect others and the world around us.

Swinging back to the other side of the Möbius band, we find three more values that help us better understand the virtue of Love.

In my diagram, Empathy is on the same level as Faith to make the point that its focus is primarily inward, in distinction from another word it is frequently confused with, compassion, which looks outward. The em- (“in”) of empathy lets us know that we are talking about an individual’s deep understanding of the human experience, of what it’s like to be a human.

Empathy grows by a process of introspective reflection on such universal human experiences as abandonment, loneliness, exclusion, oppression, abuse, deprivation, inadequacy, failure and loss.

It is out of this deep acquaintance with our own human experience that a compassionate concern for another’s wellbeing arises.

A second value of Love, charity is commonly identified with donating our time, energy, and resources to others in need, which is not wrong exactly, but still shifts the focus too quickly from what we can call the “Spirit of Love” that ideally motivates our gifts of assistance, to the specific (and tax-deductible) gifts themselves.

Charity is from the Latin caritas, which derives from the Greek agape, an important word especially in the Christian New Testament referring to the selfless, generous, and universal love of God. In a real sense, charity is not “given” but flows spontaneously from one to another.

Rounding out our contemplation of Love and ultimately bringing us back to trust is fidelity, a value that shares its roots with “faith” (Latin fide). Its position on the Möbius band places fidelity in dynamic opposition with faith. Whereas faith releases to the grounding mystery within as the inner source of Power, fidelity is devotion to the health, growth, and longevity of our relationship with another. It is the outward, and in many ways the highest, demonstration of Love.

The contribution of fidelity to a lasting relationship lies in its commitment to nurturing and protecting the bond of trust rather than attaching itself to the other, or some ideal of the other. Fidelity to the relationship gives room for us and the other to grow in freedom.

As it started, it all comes back to trust.

If we’re going to preach “family values,” let’s take it all the way and put these values into practice!

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

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