Joining the family song

There is a scene in The Sound of Music where Captain Von Trapp wavers on the threshold of the drawing room. His family are singing Edelweiss much to the enjoyment of Max and The Baroness, and he listens clearly moved by what he hears. Christopher Plummer’s facial acting at this point is incredibly powerful – reserve, regret, resolve all flicker across his countenance before he strides into the room to lend his voice to the beauty which has so captured his affections. This is a pivotal moment in the movie’s plot, allowing Von Trapp to turn away from the allure of high society, and to see in the love of his family a home where his heart can rest.

That pivot can make a powerful impact on all of the hearts of those whose calling includes the privilege of being a husband and father. It speaks to the uneasy reticence which can play on our hearts when it comes to our loved ones – a reticence which can remove us by just a few paces from the unabated joy of allowing philos and agape to be the chief reference points for how our families view us and engage with us. This is surely not universal, but as men there can be a temptation to leave an ironic gap between us and the full giving ourselves to those in our homes, a mild and unmeasured distance which is not pronounced enough to be consciously noted by our families, but which is undoubtedly felt in the subconscious, and which can flare in frustration or emotional removal. I want to probe this area, in the full understanding that many may not fully understand what I am aiming at, but trusting and praying that for some it might prove a challenge and encouragement to change.

There may be many factors behind wavering on the threshold of full engagement, but in this post I want to suggest two:

1. Insecurity
Singer-songwriter Andy Gullahorn often writes with wit and pathos about the challenges of domestic life, and our response as men to being in a family. In Everything’s as it Should Be he catalogues the simple pleasures, the cherished imperfections of everyday life, but before the song fades out in a kind of relational bliss, he drops this seemingly discordant note,

Our God only knows why it’s something to run away from,
But I’d sabotage it, for fear that it might one day come undone.

This might seem like a strange statement to make, and yet it speaks to the sense of reserve we can feel about giving ourselves fully to the most important relationships in our lives. As men we can crave tangible and quantifiable things, we can labour with a strong desire for assured and immediate results, we can find it difficult to defer fulfilment or to entrust ourselves to processes whose final outcomes we struggle to predict. The final end of relationships are impossible to trace, the simple mechanism of input and output seldom applies, and we can fear failure so much that we ensure its realisation by resisting the risk of loving those around us with fervency and fullness.

For some, these feelings are fed by the experience of relationships in childhood or as an adult which have brought terrible pain or disappointment. If that is the case then we will need significant help to work through those kinds of issues, the first steps of which might be a candid admission to those around us that our hearts bear scars which make it hard for us to fully love.

Those kind of extenuating circumstances aside, a lack of wholehearted love can be a sideswipe at God’s sovereignty, and a baseline lack of faith. To live only with the ‘sure things’ in life, to hold back a little of our emotional capital in case there is a crash in relational currency, is to overestimate our command of other areas, and to practically renounce the fact that God is in control.

When I hear the dictum ‘he that loves much, loses more’, when the strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s I am a Rock strike up in my heart, then I need to seriously assess whether this is the way of grace, the way of faith, the reality of the gospel. My heavenly Father loved me so much that he gave – this is a love which counted the cost, which laid itself down, which models the enormous gulf that living love will seek to cross, the venture of agape.

That fact should shore up my trust, and should drive my willingness to be ‘all in’ for those in my family. The dividends of this sure risk, the unparalleled joy that handing my whole heart over is difficult to measure. Vincent Van Gogh can be of real help to us here,

Those who love much, do much and accomplish much, and whatever is done with love is done well…. Love is the best and noblest thing in the human heart, especially when it is tested by life as gold is tested by fire. Happy is he who has loved much, and although he may have wavered and doubted, he has kept that divine spark alive and returned to what was in the beginning and ever shall be.

If only one keeps loving faithfully what is truly worth loving and does not squander one’s love on trivial and insignificant and meaningless things then one will gradually obtain more light and grow stronger

2. Selfishness

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard has come to be regarded as perhaps the first literary masterpiece of the Twenty First Century. This is writing of the first order, with a keen eye which can get right to the heart of things. Knausgaard is unafraid of self-reflection, and his observations can often cut the reader deeply. When considering family life the author relegates its priority beneath that of his creative endeavours, frankly confessing that he could give more of himself to his family, apart from the fact that it would get in the way of what he sees as his life’s work,

Where doe all this mess in our lives come from? I know I can change all this, I know we too can become that kind [fully committed] of family, but then I would have to want it and in that case life would have to revolve around nothing else. And that is not what I want. I do everything I have to do for the family; that is my duty. The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing.

This is a bleak, but intellectually consistent position. The author won’t commit, because he does not want to commit, and so he seeks ultimate fulfilment in other things. Lest we fall for the evident charm of the ‘impassioned artist’ trope, one could substitute ‘burn up the longing generated by this in writing’, with ‘in work’, ‘in individualised leisure’ etc. The bottom line is exactly the same – giving one’s heart to one’s home is not enough, something more is needed.

As a Christian I am obviously going to hesitate before I write about the family in ultimate terms. Our final and fullest joy is not found in any person or relationship, but in who God is, and all that He is for us. The plea of this article is not to fashion idols out of our family members, nor to load them with an existential weight that they were not built to bear. The fact remains, however, that selfishness can easily be the cause of our distance emotionally – we want to hold a little bit of a buffer so we can be and do what we want, so that we don’t get too entailed or excessively entangled, so that we can live for a neat self-fulfilment away from those who need us most.

This is often borne out by the kind of language that men can use about their time and affections in relation to family. We talk about getting a ‘pass’ to absent ourselves from key moments in life, as though our wives and children have become surrogates for the control that our parents assumed when we were teenagers. We can give the impression that investment at home is all fine and well, but as our T-shirt might even proclaim, ‘I’d rather be cycling/fishing/hiking etc’. Under those circumstances we will do almost anything we can to avoid seeing too deeply or too clearly the affection and commitment that our loved ones crave from us. If we for one moment admitted that these things were real, then our individualistic pursuits would become tainted by guilt – a guilt which we are even capable of blaming our loved ones for generating!

The best avenue away from all of this is to first of all see ourselves. This is extraordinarily difficult and painful, especially if we have habituated behaviours to such an extent that we would need to candidly repent of holding back our hearts, of shoring up our best energies for ourselves, of investing our strongest affections in things other than whose whom God has entrusted to us. It might entail resetting our schedule, or reframing our value system about what ultimately matters. The ramifications of such an about turn, however, could reach right into eternity.

There remains an invitation for us to open wide our hearts, to cross the threshold, to rejoin the song, to lay bare the pains, insecurities, and wrong attitudes which have removed us from full hearted love. The astonishing thing is that the melody that our family is singing has room for our part, that we will find eventual concord, and sweet harmony by taking our place, and that the wider we open our hearts the more fully we allow ourselves to be embraced.

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