“The data on happiness consistently point to the importance of relationships and family, and the potentially damaging impact of long-term trends towards increases in family dissolution.” – Geoff Mulgan.1
We have seen that purpose at the level of proximate reality distills down to relationships and that romantic love of another person offers profound degrees of metaphysical meaning and transcendence. Today we investigate the purpose family relationships fill in a meaningful life.
For the vast majority of mankind, the first arena of relationship experienced is that of the family. We awake from the blank consciousness of our infancy into a cognizant childhood already within a family unit – typically made up of a mother, father, and often siblings – though of course other compositions are not uncommon. To the developing brain of the child, purpose is perceived as ‘place’, that is, the child identifies its location in the family’s dynamics, one which it did not freely choose and which it is too weak to alter or escape. As the child’s ‘place’ feels largely imposed by more powerful persons, purpose is experienced as passive. In my own case, I was the fourth of four boys followed by three girls – thus I recognized the fractional attention possible by my parents, my reduced capabilities and thus necessary deference to my older brothers, and my place as buffer and support for my younger sisters.
By adolescence we begin to express our free will in rejection of a specific place, but for the most part accept the next phase, that of ‘role’ – to wit; whatever one’s personal preference, we concede a duty to fill certain functions in the family – completing chores, helping younger members, and complying with parental rules to the extent needed for family harmony and stability. There is an increasing understanding of extended family – uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins, where again filling a role is in play. Purpose at this stage for most is limited essentially to performing the minimum duties that avoid punishment or sanctions. Understandably, most young people will be hard pressed to find greater purpose in their familial relationships.
Stepwise the young adult achieves independence from the dominance of family, develops increasing inner strength, and identifies the internal purposes listed earlier. He or she likely will look first to romantic love and friendships (the subject of future blogs) for externalized purpose. Somewhat later, the mature adult most often feels a desire and senses a purpose in reconnecting with family and recreating a family unit of his or her own.
(to be continued)
1Mulgan, Geoff, Well-being and Public Policy, in David, Susan A. et. al., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-871462-0, pages 521. (Mr. Mulgan is a representative of The National Endowment of Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA), London, U.K.)