There are few terms in the LDS lexicon more loaded than “the family.” Not only is it central to our doctrines, our Sunday curriculum and our view of the afterlife, but it’s also used to defend some of the church’s historically controversial positions on social issues, most recently same-sex marriage.
Beyond the realm of religion, the family has been politicized to death by both major parties. On the right, pundits use “family values” as a catch-all conservative phrase to champion everything from pro-life abortion views to Reagan-inspired tax policy. On the left, liberals are constantly trotting out struggling parents and poor children to promote progressive welfare reform.
The result, at least for me, is that “the family” has become a term devoid of meaning. So when I found myself a few weeks ago face to face with the incredible reality of true family bonds, I was taken aback — even startled.
The revelation came in the living room of a cramped, cluttered Brooklyn apartment with far more people than chairs. I had accompanied the missionaries in our branch to teach a family of investigators, but we mostly just listened.
The parents recounted the challenges they had faced in their lives, both individually and as a couple. It was a conventionally tragic story, filled with drug use, depression, medical problems and abuse. And even as they sat in that living room — safe, sober and relatively comfortable — they had so much left to overcome.
Still, they seemed utterly united as a family and unwilling to loosen their grip on each other, no matter how strong the opposing forces became.
The family’s matriarch (we’ll call her Maria) admitted that early on in their marriage, she was still learning how to be a responsible wife and mother. She may not have been mature enough to start a family, she said, but her love for her husband and kids caused her to grow up. She stopped staying out late every night; she distanced herself from bad influences; and she began heeding her husband’s suggestion that she spend more time at home.
A close friend of Maria’s began to notice the changes in her lifestyle and demanded to know the reason. When Maria responded that she was trying to make her husband happy, the friend was outraged. “You should just leave him,” she said. “He doesn’t own you.”
Maria balked — and even as she told the story to us years after the fact, you could see her stubborn determination. She said that one statement ended the longtime friendship, and that there was nothing that would cause her to break ties with her blood.
“This is my family,” she said. And then again: “This is my family.”
That kind of fierce loyalty isn’t typically showcased. When politicians speak passionately about “the family,” it’s usually followed by a request for donations or votes. And even in our church, it sometimes feels like Sunday School teachers absently repeat familiar family-oriented sound bites without giving much thought to what they mean.
But families aren’t about sound bites or sermons. True family values are manifest in countless quiet, common ways — not at the pulpit or on the campaign trail, but in cramped, cluttered living rooms with more people than chairs.