During the years that I worked with my dad as a private investigator (and even before that as I heard stories of his various cases), I came to recognize the connection between the moral choices people make, the conflict and chaos they experience in their lives, and the way those choices effect others in their family–especially children. This experience made me cynical at first. Then it made me an Augustinian. My view could perhaps now be best expressed as a sort of Augustinian ironic cynicism. Some might see post-modernism in there… no doubt they are right to a degree as we are all children of our time as surely as we are children of our parents.
One of my favorite examples of the sort of immoral drama people sometimes make of their lives is that of the man who hired my dad to see whether or not his girl-friend was cheating on him. OK, so far a fairly normal request. But, it just so happens that his girl-friend was married. So, here’s this guy who’s having an affair with a married woman who hires a private investigator to determine whether or not said woman is involved in yet another extra-marital relationship. When I heard about that request it took me five minutes to stop laughing. “What does he expect,” I thought, “she’s obviously not of the highest moral fiber… and besides, what constitutes ‘cheating” on him… do you video-tape her on a weekend retreat with her husband–does that count as cheating on the boyfriend?” Such is the absurdity of the extended adolescence we often reward ourselves with.
This was of course a rather humorous example. Much less humorous is that of the promiscuous parent who cannot see how their children’s mimicry of their childish behavior will have negative consequences even as they try to pawn off their own responsibility as a role model on various other people–teachers, coaches, youth ministers, friends parents etc… Their concern for their children goes deep enough for them to hope that they will not follow in their footsteps, but not deep enough for them to actually change their lives. That is an illustration of what it means to be a childish adult.
The best contemporary illustration of how the unintended consequences of our actions effect our families–not just in the short term, but generationally–is John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.
Rod Dreher gives another example of this in the following blog post, beginning with the always insightful Wendell Berry:
Wendell Berry has written on why you cannot fully privatize sexuality, that it inescapably involves a covenant between the individual and the community. Excerpt:
If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglect, community ruin, and loneliness. If you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of mutual usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold.
I thought about that this week when I heard from an old Christian friend I’ll call Bobby. Bobby is in late middle age, and in crisis. His wife left him earlier this year after having had an affair. It shattered him. He granted her the divorce. Now he’s living a pretty wild life, and called to tell me about it this week. It made me so sad I hardly knew what to say to him. He was once one of the most devout and upstanding Christian men I knew, but now? After listening to him recount his exploits, I finally said, “Bobby, how do you square that with your Christian faith?”
Also, check out this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, which I believe Dreher pulled the above quote from: