Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Family Duties

For anyone who knows me personally, my parents and I have a good relationship. We're very close and get along very well. Part of it, I think, is the fact that my parents are pretty reserved, quiet people, so I learned how to be happy at home.

That same relationship does not exist between other parts of the family, though. My father's side of the family is not quite as close emotionally, yet there is a strong sense of family obligations. What I mean is that, for example, my dad is not that close to his father, yet my dad does everything to help him out (who, honestly, should be in some kind of assisted living facility). My dad used to put our family plans on hold so that he could do whatever his father asked of him. My dad is pretty much the exemplar of what the "dutiful son" should be.

Except that that's not what a dutiful son should be. He used to sacrifice his relationships with his sons and wife in order to do what his father asked of him. There's a good reason Jesus talked about the whole "a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife" (Mark 10:7). There is a separation that marriage (and adulthood) implies. My dad's parents acted like a horrible boss who would demand that the worker stay until late and work weekends at the boss' whim. My dad's learned how he's not nearly as responsible for his parents as he has thought he was; he's still a good, dutiful son if he tells his father, "No, I'm not doing that for you." Even if it means that it's left undone. He is not responsible for everything.

However, my dad still has obligations for his father. Too frequently we would want to write off "the old man" and put him in a nursing home to get rid of him, visiting him just once in a while to avoid feeling guilty. Now, putting someone in a nursing facility who honestly needs it is fine enough, but sometimes we get this idea that anything that messes with our happiness must be gotten rid of. Just because my dad is not bound to do everything his father demands does not mean that he's free of all responsibility.

Then we have to figure out exactly what those duties are. What is my dad responsible for?

In fact, what are our family obligations? What do we owe our relatives? Our spouse? Our kids? Our parents?

Is there anything special about families (now I'm talking about both extended and nuclear families) that requires us to do more for them than we'd do for others? Now, I think we all agree that parents/guardians have a special obligation for their children for nurturing and making sure the children have their physical, emotional and social needs met while children have a special obligation for listening to their parents and learning to do what is right. I'm sure there are a few others that I'm leaving out. Beyond that, though, is there something specific about family bonds that requires greater obligations?

For example, if I'm an adult and I have a mother who I'm not that close to living in Georgia who has friends there and a church home, who has greater duties: me or her friends? Is it because of blood or is it because of friendship? Is it by physical nearness or something else?

Or maybe a different scenario: I'm a lifelong member of a church and one member of the congregation's elderly. Now he'd been almost an uncle to me all my life- there for me when I couldn't talk to my parents and there for me in times of celebration and sadness. But now he's in declining health. Is there some duty in the bonds of affection that the bond of baptism doesn't give?

Or to put it another way: what bond does family create that isn't given in baptism? What duties do we have for parents, friends, and strangers, and what duties are required just because of baptism?


And I promised that I would eventually put up pictures of something. Here you go!

This is a bowl of petunias. That is my handprint down in the corner, too. Scary to think it was made 15 years ago!

Pink flamingos! Those adorable, pink, plastic lawn ornaments.

Prayer flags blowing in the wind before a nice little storm.


ariel said...

Maybe this answer is overly simplistic, but aren't our duties to others kind of difficult to define outside of context, and written on our hearts when there is context?
For example, you question whether far-off children or close-by friends have greater responsibility for a woman. I would have to say that they have different responsibilities that they will inherently know by virtue of being present to the situation, and that those responsibilities can't (shouldn't?) be measured against each other.
As Mormons are fond of saying, it's just as important to be a good nursery leader as a good apostle.

Karl Julian said...

I think you're right. Context is a huge part of our responsibilities. What I ought to do depends upon so many factors that I have to figure out what to do when I'm already in the middle of the situation. It makes ethics and all that really messy, but such is life.

Does the degree of responsibility change based on family relationships, though? Given how much guilt and shame can work themselves into situations like this, we do need some guidelines beforehand so that we're doing what's right because it's right, not because we feel guilty and shameful even though we're really not responsible for it.

ariel said...

"Given how much guilt and shame can work themselves into situations like this, we do need some guidelines..."

Do we? I think what we need is practice discerning our God-given responsibilities; reading the law on our hearts. Other people can and will certainly express their opinions, and in circumstances when one is truly lost, doesn't that serve as a guideline?

It strikes me that guidelines would be helpful for clergy trying to aid their congregants, and perhaps that's the context in which you're asking... maybe I should just shut up :P