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Identity


Fr. Walter Ciszek Did Not Mind Talking About Himself

“The man who is truly humble and very close to God does not mind talking about himself. And so I’m going to talk about myself.” – Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.[1] The speaker of the above words survived twenty-three years in the Soviet Gulag. He was tortured, sentenced to fifteen years of heavy labor, and all […]

Simba’s Amnesia

This one comes to us from Blake Nail. Nostalgia bleeds through the screen as The Lion King remake plays before me. The CGI is astounding and the story still holds strong. For many, it’s a remembrance of their childhood. A flashback to simpler times. A time forgotten. However, through Simba’s eyes, something else has been […]

Anhedonia and Men Without Chests: The Timeless Grace of Good Memories

It has now been over 23 years since Wallace penned the inimitable words: “Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent [and] cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.” He explained, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as conceptualized) […]

I Feel Personally Attacked RN – Sarah Condon

Laugh and cry with this talk featuring the Rev Sarah Condon, from our “Beyond Deserving” conference this past spring. Here Sarah opens up about the cost of performance, a long-lost relative, a recurring neck injury, Shavasana (or, “corpse pose”), and the faith of Christ.

I Feel Personally Attacked RN – Sarah Condon from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

Social Media and Our Identities

About two years ago, my then 14-year-old daughter shuffled into our living room and sat down on the other end of the white couch where I was stationed. I was scrolling through Twitter to see what was going on with my Twitter friends and skimming the latest headlines. I looked up from my phone and […]

The Open-Concept Family, AKA The Family Issue Opener and Table of Contents

As the Family Issue make its way from the printer to the post office, here’s a look at the opener, and a peek at what comes after! If you haven’t ordered a copy yet, you can do so here

You can’t talk about families without talking about the containers they come in. The home, especially in America, is the sanctum sanctorum of family life. No other non-living entity absorbs so much human ambition and longing, so much futzing and pruning, so much money and worry, and so much love. “Home” for you might be an efficiency apartment or a sprawling suburban ranch, but odds are the majority of your memories can be placed within the confines of those walls. You know the exact spot in the house where you got that phone call, or the spot where he used to read his newspaper, or the exact rung in the banister where everyone’s shirt gets snagged. “If these walls could talk …”

Walls can’t talk, though. And even if they could, walls definitely aren’t talking these days, since there really are no walls to speak of. Open concept houses, where nearly zero rooms are divided by walls, have become the way families imagine doing life together. When the kitchen, living room, dining room, and TV room are all one room, there’s the promise that you’re creating space that “allows the love to flow,” as the Scandinavians say. Fewer boundaries equals more family togetherness.

What realtors are starting to find, though, is that the aspirational notion of more family time has led to … more family time. The Boston Globe reported that this has led homeowners to face some harsh truths about their family lives, namely,

That you’re not a parent who wants the kids RIGHT THERE when you’re in the kitchen, your only alone time, or what used to be your only alone time. That you’re not a host relaxed enough to chat with guests while preparing a three-course meal. That you’re not Marie Kondo enough to keep every inch of what used to be three rooms clutter-free at all times.

Walls, in other words, were nice: For one, they hid the mountain of crap that inevitably flowed over from the other parts of our lives. But most importantly, they buffered us from the strange people who shared our DNA.

Unfortunately, walls or not, these strange people will always remain strange. Every home is its own molecular structure of dysfunction, a physical reminder that you are born under a larger umbrella organization. You have parents and (sometimes) siblings, who have names and stories and contexts that you may not want but are inseparably yours. There are certain codes of conduct, certain ways of communicating (or not communicating), certain predispositions to freckles or spicy foods or hand-eye clumsiness. For better or worse, this place is your first and often most influential institution of “professional development.” Weirdly, you never submitted your résumé to this office—you don’t know if you would’ve if you had the choice—but the job’s yours all the same. You are a born natural for it!

Still, despite the job description and the baggage it brings, the homes we live in tend to foster our fiercest loyalties and most deep-seated convictions. The oldest religion in the world is family. If the etymology of religion is “to tighten” or “to bind,” then it makes sense that the oldest established religion came not with cuneiform or pyramids, but with the family unit, where members have always been bound up together in collective mythologies and rituals. It continues today, as you watch old VHS home videos, as you obnoxiously rehash the same old jokes with the same lame punchline, as you comfortably fall back into familiar roles like a well-worn sofa.

In other words, no matter how far you fly, or with whom you create new families, you always take them with you, because to some degree, you are them. As the country singer Lori McKenna put it,

The tree grows where it’s planted / And that’s the fate of a fallen seed

No matter how many times I’ve denied it / The apple never falls far from the tree

As long as family therapists and professional helpers have been around, their work has centered on the damning determinism of the family unit, how the proverbial “sins of the father” really do, in fact, sprawl out in time. God’s family, as it is presented in the Bible, proves no different: All down the family line is a story of liars begetting murderers begetting drunks begetting liars again.

Which I guess makes Jesus’ ambivalence about the family enterprise less startling. But only slightly less. Living in a cultural (and theological) milieu that, much like today, prioritized family over all else, he denounced it as a powerful evasion, a way to wall off reality and revelation. Whenever a family caveat is thrown before him (“But Jesus, your mom is outside!” or “Wait Jesus, I need to bury my father!”) Jesus doubles down on the centrality of his own message: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.”

Jesus is not anti-family so much as he is anti-walls, and the way he sees it, the four walls of a home are no different from the four walls of the temple—a safe haven from a cruel world, sure, but also a buffer zone from the true heart of God and a breeding ground for self-deception. I wonder whether his devastating prophecy about the temple could just as easily be levied on the family mythologies rehearsed in every family home: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone (nay, not one “accent wall”) will be standing where it’s standing now.”

Ultimately, Jesus reminds us, even if our families love us and protect us, no rearing could ever have the generative power to make us whole or evade suffering. Every family, Ben Maddison writes in this issue, is cruciform in shape. In the end, our families point us to a need they cannot provide.

Jesus points us to the fragility of our walled-off holiest of holies, and to the only hope that our families have ever had. Look at the home you can’t keep clean, the mother-in-law you can’t tolerate, the daughter who won’t call, the spouse you’re losing to cancer. There is an endless array of reckonings awaiting all families. But as Christ stands within the four walls of your failed temple, and he stretches out his hands, he offers not only the compassion of a loving God, but the hope of a very real resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

There is no shortage of losses in families, both literally and figuratively. This also means that there is no limit to the stories in which God has done some of his own home restoration work. We’ve compiled a few of them here, in the hopes that they provide consolation and hope. We also have interviews with psychologist Harriet Lerner, education and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, and Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick. We’ve got essays about foster parents and surrogate parents, preacher families and estranged families. We talk about divorce, dogs, apologies, parenting advice, and the church’s incessant focus on families. And that’s not all.

So, brew yourself some tea, turn the page, and enjoy the remaining walls in your open concept home. By the time you reach the last page, we’ll have (hopefully) removed them all.

Click here to order your copy!

ORDER YOUR COPY HERE!

He Was Number One (or, Why Not Everyone Gets A’s, According to Alfie Kohn)

Imagine a high school graduation. Family and friends proudly jostle for a view of their students turning tassels on stage. Imagine the students’ camaraderie, the collective sigh of relief: summer spans ahead, former identities fade. Outcasts, athletes, nerds all face the world, now wide with opportunity. Imagine, also, the salutatorian standing and speaking about her […]

From The Atlantic: Are McMansions Making People Any Happier?

Apple’s magazine and news service, Apple News+, served me up another parable of the little-L law from The Atlantic last week as I perused my News app. It’s a classic, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses type report about how we Americans are building bigger homes than everand yet our happiness tends to be inversely proportionate to the square footage of our new real estate. As usual, the dynamics of comparison, judgment, and self-salvation (AKA self-justification) are at play. A couple of takeaway quotes (emphasis mine):

To be clear, having more space does generally lead to people saying they’re more pleased with their home. The problem is that the satisfaction often doesn’t last if even bigger homes pop up nearby. “If I bought a house to feel like I’m ‘the king of my neighborhood,’ but a new king arises, it makes me feel very bad about my house,” Bellet wrote to me in an email. […]

Bellet sketches out an unfulfilling cycle of one-upmanship, in which the owners of the biggest homes are most satisfied if their home remains among the biggest, and those who rank right below them grow less satisfied as their dwelling looks ever more measly by comparison.

A Little Ditty ’Bout Jack and the Desert Monks

In the gallows humor of this thing called Life, it’s usually in the afterglow of fulfilling our ultimate dreams that we wake up and ask, “What in the hell was I thinking?” Was it worth delaying marriage, foregoing children, neglecting aging parents and ignoring friendships, to find myself in my late-40s with a career fat […]

Experts and Engines: Ode to a ’99 Heep Cherokee

An indulgent dive into “My Documents” brought me to the following essay, which I began writing several years ago. Some time-defying adjustments—minus a metaphor, plus a William Davies reference—made for something I’m happy to dredge out of obscurity. Glad I’m past all of this… Having attended 3-4 different churches in the last five years (not […]

I’m a Vampire! I’m a Vampire! I’m a Vampire!

Another year, another Dungeons and Dragons campaign on the books. Fully enveloped within the modern resurgence of the classic fantasy roleplaying game, I’ve been running (“dungeon mastering”) a series of campaigns for my wife and our group of best friends over the past few years. We just wrapped up a six-month campaign where our party […]

Needles & Nails: Finding Identity in Ink

I have little interest in getting a tattoo. Maybe it’s a matter of taste—I prefer expressing myself with music rather than body markings. Or maybe it’s my upbringing. Without a single tattoo in my immediate family there’s a sense of inertia working against me. But my wariness of tattoos is likely the fruit of a […]