In the epic novel Anna Karenina, we are told the story of a woman in a very unhappy family. Tolstoy explains, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As his novel shows, there are limitless ways to produce misery – and misery is an never-ending pit. The Karenina family was torn apart by selfishness, naïveté, and betrayal – but the causes of human suffering are numberless. Dr. Jordan Peterson has said, “No matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.” However, all diverse forms of destruction tend to derive from one foundational vice – pride.
“The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began…For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Conversely, the path to familial happiness is always pretty much the same, and the destination is peace. Getting there requires humility and self-sacrifice. In many ways it is more difficult to build a happy family, we all tilt toward pride and self-centeredness – but efforts in the short-term reaps eternal benefits.
When we get married and begin our life together, our initial perspective is crucial. Are we in this for ourselves? I am embarrassed to admit watching the show The Bachelor a few times. It is actually a fascinating study in human nature. I have noticed that when the women are asked what they want in a spouse the responses are usually quite self-centered. “I want someone that will adore me and give me freedom” “I deserve someone that accepts me as I am.” While these are understandable desires, the best perspective to take, if we want to create a lasting and happy home, is one of self-sacrifice. “I want to give my love to someone.” It may difficult to make such statements before we find the right person – but once we do, our attention needs to move from ourselves to the one we love.
To achieve a happy home we must let go of our natural proclivities and vices. I remember as newlyweds, my husband and I were advised to always speak respectfully to each other. I wanted a good relationship so I determined to do just that. My husband had no problem, I was not prepared for how difficult it would be for me. I am one of seven siblings. Sarcasm and debate are our primary methods of communication. It was very difficult for me in those early days of marriage to bite my tongue and speak respectfully. I had to hold back the perfect snarky statement or let go of a witty comeback- I felt fake and mourned the loss of my old style. However, as time passed, I noticed that I felt safe with my husband in a way I hadn’t in the environment of one-upmanship I had with my siblings. I no longer felt a burden to compete, but instead felt love and companionship. Now when I descend into my old sarcastic or argumentative self, I feel chaos and angst replacing peace.
Creating a happy family requires much more sacrifice in the beginning (or during course correction), but the farther we travel the road of sacrifice – the more straight and simple our course becomes. We see the reason for our efforts and we become practiced in prioritizing others. I got used to speaking differently with my husband and now it is mostly habit. As we let our “deadwood” burn off and put the family first, we get to experience the joy found in a loving home. As Tolstoy points out, a happy family can seem quite ordinary – no chaos or contention – nothing worthy of an epic novel. However, when we find that peace and joy, we know the sacrifice was worth it.
“For strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Matthew 7:14