Humanity’s ultimate laboratory

Just because something is hard does not mean that it is unnecessary, and our families give us ample evidence of that every day – especially now.

Armando Franca/AP
Jose Gemas gestures a hug to his son, Jose Navarro (right), and a friend at a nursing home outside Lisbon, Portugal, on May 18, 2020.

Someone once told me that marriage is not about finding someone you love. It is about finding someone with whom you can discover what love is.

Families can give us joy and heartache, fellowship and frustration, support and aggravation. Over Thanksgiving, they can give us all those things in the space of one weekend. Which is why this week’s cover story strikes such a deep and universal chord. Stephen Humphries tells the stories of families that were broken – seemingly irrevocably – and how the perspective brought by the coronavirus pandemic has begun to knit them back together.

The stories are as varied as the families in them. Misunderstandings, neglect, or anger led to estrangements – fathers from children, brothers from sisters. In one case, a sister had long imagined never reconciling with her brother, and was untroubled by the thought. Until now.

The coronavirus crisis has, Stephen notes, stripped away so many layers of daily life – be it a sense of security or routine or comfort. And for some, the exposed bedrock beneath is family. Hurts and disagreements have unexpectedly diminished in some significant degree, showing that an indissoluble love was still there, after all. And that has brought meaning to a time when so much seems uncertain.

But the stories Stephen writes about are not easy. Reconciliation is rarely an endpoint, but a beginning – a mutual moment of grace that creates the space for more. And that is what draws me back to what my friend told me years ago. Families are humankind’s ultimate laboratory for love. And Stephen’s cover story could be a textbook on what that kind of love requires.

Why should we set the boundary for that kind of affection at a blood connection? One answer might be that this kind of love is too difficult: How could we possibly summon such patience and humility with everyone? But, of course, we do all the time. Not just those who adopt or take in foster children, but all of us, to our varying degrees.

What is a neighborhood but a group of people who know us and are willing to give us shelter in the dead of winter when our heater breaks (as neighbors have for my family)? Or what about our work colleagues and friends who have our backs or help us celebrate? Or what about churches or nonprofits or entire governments that help feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the needy? Family is just the beginning, really.

Just because something is hard does not mean that it is unnecessary, and our families give us ample evidence of that every day – and perhaps now, especially. As Stephen chronicles, the rewards of loving, even when it seems impossible, can be transformational.

Can that kind of love be applied to entire communities, countries, continents? Who is our family? Those are difficult questions, particularly in polarized times. But each of us proves some part of the answer every day.

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