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Historians and philosophers agree: the family unit forms the foundational building block of civilization—however, it helps to remember that it is not hewn from rigid stone.
Every family is an organic arrangement of many interconnected and moving parts, and each part is involved in a simultaneous process of growth, evolution and transformation.
Any analogy we use to describe the family is bound to be simpler than the complexity inherent in the family unit, and whatever conclusion we draw about how it works does not stand for very long. Families are all composed of real people and not machines with preprogrammed definitive roles, despite what may be prescribed and proscribed by tradition. There are no fixed functions for its members. With each successive stage of our lives and our civilizations our roles within the family change, and the responsibilities we once had are passed along to others as we accept new ones. One thing remains the same, though—the importance of unity within a family:
The basic parameters of family structure may vary according to where we live in the world. Several well-established and culturally defined ways of structuring the family unit exist, all different methods of organizing people who see themselves as related. These structures are composed of long-standing ideals and social conventions and are perpetuated because we tend to replicate what is familiar and comfortable to us. No matter what form of family structure we may find ourselves in, though, several interrelated components are critical to its success and unity—these include individuality, interdependence, stability, and, above all, sanctity. Within the family there must be a place for each person’s individuality to develop and thrive. The lamp of individual character needs a niche from which it may shine:
Ye must become brilliant lamps. Ye must shine as stars radiating the light of love toward all mankind. – Ibid., p. 347.
Our membership in the family should not render the light of our own personality imperceptible. To shine forth we must have enough space to explore new ideas and investigate the truth of what we discover, and we must have the acceptance of others to do so. We must be able to determine what is appropriate for ourselves while respecting the limits of a standard of propriety. If we allow each of our family members a similar space, then we accommodate everyone’s need to learn, to grow, and to be significant.
The family that respects each member’s individuality builds a house with many niches. In such a family there is no need to try to outshine others by diminishing or extinguishing another person’s light. The brilliance of our own light is sufficient to be appreciated, and we can enjoy and benefit from each other’s lights, rather than seeking to stand alone and above all others.
If we are intolerant of another’s individuality and dictate that others act as we do, everyone’s light is diminished. The standard of acceptable behavior and expression needs to be shared by all. If we try to impose a standard that is self-serving, arbitrary, and entirely of our own making, we may hear ourselves or other family members say things like “Not under my roof.” This is not a very good means of explaining the rationale of a standard we are trying to uphold. In fact, such explanations may signal that there is no standard, only capriciousness and the need for power.
True family stability is rarely maintained by strict adherence to tradition, or by attempting to do the same thing in every situation regardless of the circumstances. No matter what we do, circumstances are bound to change. Family stability is maintained by doing the reasonable thing in the midst of changing circumstances.
The ability to determine what is reasonable is the key. This requires one to see what is beneficial to one and all. This is best achieved by having a standard to which we can compare our behaviors and values. The family is like a large, slow-moving vehicle. As it advances through time, it comes across novel ideas, fresh opportunities, and new arrangements. It tries them out, and those that seem to work are incorporated into the operation of the machine. At the same time, the machine discards outmoded ideas, waning opportunities, and nonfunctional arrangements because they no longer work. The machine is composed of all the members of the family and has a sufficient critical mass of expertise and wisdom to sustain it. Without this cumulative understanding of what works and what doesn’t, the machine lacks stability. Without the stability and continuity of the family structure, we find ourselves on our own.
The long, unbroken chain of family continuity is more than just a building block of society—it is civilization. The stability it provides allows science, art, and music to flourish. According to the Baha’i teachings, keeping the family strong and spiritually focused is not only important but essential to the continuation of civilization:
The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered, and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother—none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary. Just as the son has certain obligations to his father, the father, likewise, has certain obligations to his son. The mother, the sister and other members of the household have their certain prerogatives. All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved, yet the unity of the family must be sustained. – Ibid., p. 168.