This essay is excerpted and adapted from the author’s forthcoming book (Holt, March 16), Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.
To borrow a thought from Catherine of Siena, nothing great is ever achieved without suffering. No one wants to suffer. No healthy person seeks to do so. But most people do know that accomplishing anything important is hard. Suffering can be fruitful if we understand its roots and channel it toward good ends.
Tocqueville saw that democracy isolates the individual in the name of liberty. Wendell Berry attacked the gigantism of modern life; how it turns persons into passive recipients of meaningless choices. And Christopher Lasch often spoke of “the minimal self.” Under siege, he claimed, a person’s self shrinks to a defensive core. Its focus becomes little more than psychic survival. In effect, despite all our culture’s noise about the wonders of “you” and “me” as individuals (i.e., each of us as consumers), the scope of our problems and institutions leaves us feeling powerless.
Put simply: The flaw in the modern self is not that it’s too strong. On the contrary. It’s too weak. Today’s consumer life is ordered toward creating that weakness. While flattering the individual self, it also controls the self with massive advertising, media fantasies, and a limited range of material choices.
Strong families do the opposite. Who we are as “selves” is largely the product of formation and nourishment by others. The forge of a mature, resilient self is the family ruled by intentional love. Scripture describes love as being “strong as death” (Song of Sol. 8:6). And for good reason. Nothing has more persuasive power than self-sacrifice; the example, sustained over time, of giving oneself to or for another, purely for the sake of the other.
That kind of love, the real kind of love, shapes the life of a child. The child may one day stray from it, but he or she will never escape its memory and effect. Predictably, given its power, real love also has a cost; a cost in discomfort and suffering. The cheap and impermanent nature of sex relations in current American life disguises an evasion, even a hatred, of love’s cost and the personal entanglements it brings. But the cost is justified by the return: The child shaped in virtue by parental love becomes the adult grounded in a strong identity and deep humanity. And such a person is much harder to dominate.
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