What is the Family?

Leo Tolstoy opened his novel Anna Karenina with the now-famous line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” a statement that rings true in the light of those who struggle with both predictable and unpredictable stressors.   While it is true that unhappiness is a unique experience for each family, pain is the great equalizer.  All families hurt.  How they hurt is the distinctive chord, but knowing how to respond to that hurt is what will help unhappy families to remain family to one another.

From the work of Cynthia A. Lietz (2011), who explored the role of empathy in resilient families, it can be determined that every family copes with difficulties, but the resilient ones are those which find happiness.

Happiness comes from the ability to live a meaningful life, and meaning is applied based on the level of empathy attributed to one’s experience.  Essentially, hurting families have empathy for other hurting families and this empathy leads to altruistic action, which results in satisfied, happy, helping people.

A definition of what families are grows out of the research that defines the experience of families in becoming resilient.  According to the findings of Lietz (2011), families:

  1. Are worth studying
  2. Are resilient
  3. Are made up of individuals (who)
  4. Hurt together
  5. Provide support
  6. Care
  7. Cope
  8. Tell stories
  9. Communicate internally and externally in many ways
  10. Serve (others and each other, together and apart)
  11. Remember
  12. Are where individual influence begins
  13. Make up community
  14. Suffer losses
  15. Shape our understanding of the world
  16. Relate to other families
  17. Help other families
  18. Either stick together or disintegrate, by choice and through communication
  19. Survives, endures, lasts with some effort
  20. Respond to needs
  21. Teach their children how to respond to pain
  22. Nurture children to be more empathetic
  23. Make meaning together
  24. Are unique
  25. Adapt

The role of empathy in both providing family support and allowing families to grow and change is an important one.  It reminds me of the friends I made when my parents were going through their divorce.  I found surprising connections with people who were experiencing the same dynamics that I was, and it helped me to know that the abnormal frustrations I was feeling were appropriate in response to the circumstances in which I found myself.

I can also now look back on my experience and see that it has shaped me into the person I am today, the woman with a very special place in my heart and in my ministry for those who come from hurting families.

To be truthful, I don’t know of any other kind of family.  All families struggle with life and need to fight for cohesion in the face of change.  Communication is the only unifying practice that allows for reflection and refocusing.  When families talk about their experiences, they remember and restore their sense of togetherness.  When they feel unified in their shared struggle, they will be more compassionate and forgiving, more kind and more hopeful.  The more kind we are to ourselves and others, the more peace will pervade our lives.  The more peace we carry on a personal level, the more we’ll be able to give to our families.


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