Why do we behave better outside our homes than inside with family?
Suburban life has many oddities but one of the oddest is this: no one sees our dirty laundry. Detached homes—unlike the townhouses and multi-family residences so common in urban areas—don’t even offer a single wall, or porch, or window where our neighbors might catch wind of the ways in which we fall short of Christian harmony. No one hears the yelling. No one sees the rudeness. No one sees us grieve our children.
This could seem like a good thing, and maybe this kind of privacy is the whole point after all. We spend much of our youth dreaming about a place of our own where no one will tell us we’ve slept too late, or we’ve done something badly, or we’ve been just plain obnoxious. But I’m not so sure this kind of domestic privacy is altogether good for us. It is a sorry fact that we rarely manage to do what is best, or even what is right, when no one is watching. Or as Flannery O’Connor put it, "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
Now, if we are honest, this is probably true of our family life too—we would have been good to each other if someone had been there to take notice all the time. And we are capable indeed: we do manage to curb our worst habits at work, at Church, and in many other places with folks who deserve much less from us.
But this is outrageous when we stop to think about it. Do we suppose that our family has some kind of special obligation to look past what others would not—our laziness, rudeness, or insensitivity? And if so, why should they have this special task? Is it because we are biologically “related”? Is it because we are married, or because they are our children? No, such a proposition is laughable. Any reasonable discussion of what our family deserves from us would take us quickly to the opposite conclusion.
How interesting, then, that the Church summons us to meditate on the Holy Family here, at the end of the year, as if to say: your family life really is that yardstick by which to measure the goodness of your year. This idea stands in stark contrast against the hackneyed, self-centered resolutions flying around in the culture, most of which amount to aiming for a more beautiful, more organized, more fabulous version of you.
But what is the trick? Just what is the Church proposing? I think there are at least two helpful ideas in the treasure of the Church here, each of which involves righting things that the world inverts.
The first pertains to the question of how we can seek change. New Year’s resolutions have become something of a joke on account of the fact that almost no one succeeds in keeping them. The Church proposes something different: the idea that we are powerless to change ourselves—but with God all things are possible. This isn’t some kind of pious raving. It is just sane realism: the honest truth about ourselves and about God. This year, we really can walk on water. This year, we really can move mountains. This year there is no resolution off limits. Not because God is some kind of grand self-help program, but because there is only one resolution worth making: to seek God. And this is the resolution upon which all other resolutions depend.
The second idea builds from the first, and helps us to think more critically about the nature and purpose of privacy and domestic life. If seeking God is the only resolution worth making, Jesus told us how: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt 6:6)
Now we can think about our “room” in two senses. There is our “room,” understood as the private space where we dwell—our home, our bedroom, or maybe a space we call our own no bigger than a closet. Then there is the “room” that is our interior castle. Raoul Plús, great Jesuit spiritual writer, says: “This is the whole problem of recollection: to dwell where God dwells. But as He dwells within, it is only an issue of entering into our selves. We are at the very door of the cathedral. In fact, there is no door; we have merely to raise the screen of our languid inertia.”