Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Perfecting families

Perfection in the Family

Panorthosia, Chapter 21, paragraphs 2 and 3
By John Taylor; 2008 Oct 14, 17 Mashiyyat 165 BE

In the second paragraph of this family chapter of the Panorthosia, Comenius points to some of the many precedents in scripture for putting family first. He singles out Psalm 101, which, he says, "shows how David on perceiving that he was destined by God to hold the reins of kingship, proposed first and foremost to purify his household again." Comenius did not need to go into the Psalm's details, but I for one could do with a refresher. The prayer starts off,

"I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing. I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart." (KJV)

Family is a training ground for perfection. A perfect heart, the Psalm implies, comes about by combining compassion with justice. Mercy and judgment are normally thought of as mutually exclusive but the quality of wisdom can balance them out. Of course, this is especially difficult to do in the close confines of domestic life -- which is why David is determined to walk there with a "perfect heart." Whereas conflicts with outsiders are aerated and cooled by regular separations, conflicts under the same roof tend to act like greenhouse gases preventing the heat of ill will from being vented. As oppressive tensions rise, violence or divorce often result. Worse, any breaches in a household harm everyone, not just the parties who are in dispute.

A family whose members "walk with a perfect heart" are determined to serve God by acting as moral filters to one another, by turning attention away from faultfinding and wrongdoing and instead concentrating on the unity and example of God, whose "eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me: he that walketh in a perfect way, he shall serve me." This is one reason, perhaps, why the perfect Baha'i chose to call Himself by the title "servant," Abdu'l-Baha.

Perfection, then, is the use of wisdom in applying two principles; tolerantly forgiving flaws while still maintaining a teaching relationship, judging when it is timely to change and improve one another. This is also confirmed by Baha'u'llah in the third Taraz, "This Wronged One exhorteth the peoples of the world to observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind." (Tablets, 36) He repeats this in the Lawh-i-Maqsud, "The heaven of true understanding shineth resplendent with the light of two luminaries: tolerance and righteousness." (Tablets, 169-170)

The family Psalm continues, going on to condemn obstructions to teaching, including pride, disobedience, insolence and estrangement. Note the special attention to backbiting.

"I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me. A froward heart shall depart from me: I will not know a wicked person. Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer."

The intimate confines of a home can turn it into a seedbed of wrongs and a shelter of oppression, especially if the natural human habits of rebellion and backstabbing are not strictly curtailed. The 101st Psalm thus also condemns lying and intrigue, evil habits which rapidly obliterate happiness and unity in a family.

"He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight..."

Not only is truthfulness the foundation of character, it is the basis of family happiness as well. It is a strict condition of membership in any family under God.

As mentioned, Comenius is aiming in this chapter at a family constitution, one that each family would devise itself. He plainly has in mind that a Christian family would use this Psalm as a preamble to their constitution and I see no reason why a Baha'i family should not use it as well.

The balance of the second paragraph of Comenius's discussion of family is concerned with other examples of Old Testament prophets, heads of families one and all, whose teaching about God started by transforming their own households.

"The patriarchs of old set a good example by beginning with their own families whenever they desired to reform human affairs in times of decadence. When Abraham was summoned to leave the company of idolaters, he did his best to instil into his children and his household the knowledge of God, and the observance of His ways, and the practice of justice and judgement, on the recommendation of God Himself (Genesis 18:19). Also, although Jacob had met with great blessing from God in the increase of his family and his wealth, and had engaged in conflict with God's help and received the title of Conqueror, yet when he knew of the hatred of his brother towards him and saw the stain of guilt upon his household (from the defilement of his daughter and the bloody crime of his sons), he set his mind to the reform of his entire household (Genesis 35: 2,3,4).

I would add that Job too was an example of this. His afflictions began with the violent death of most of his family and, after his passion and as part of his recompense, it ended with the gift of a new, even larger extended household. Baha'u'llah tells the Baha'i version of Job's story in the Surih-i-Sabr,

"We solaced his eyes by the joy of his family and we fulfilled what We had promised the patient ones in all the holy and preserved Tablets. We made good all his affairs and We confirmed him with (the) mighty arm of Our revelation."

Comenius continues in the third paragraph, comparing the virtue orientation of a pious family to the materialism of one that is not.

"So long as holy examples such as these are generally disregarded, the effect is to produce households which are mainly no better than pigsties or cattle-stalls where food for their bellies is the only thing they care about,' and further confusion is caused by the lack of agreement, faith, and virtue between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants."

The obstacles to happy family life do not change over the centuries, do they? It is astonishing to read this so long before advertising learned to pipe materialist propaganda right into every living room. Now a "pigsty" philosophy of family is the norm.

We need, Comenius is telling us, to put a great deal more effort into holding up examples of successful families and keeping our attention on that.

I often think of an incident that happened in the late 1980's in Hamilton. The local paper, the Spectator, reported how a family volunteered to have its daily interactions videotaped for an early "reality show" on television. Only a few episodes were broadcast because as soon as child welfare authorities viewed it they shut it down, so perverse and abusive were the parent's methods of "discipline." Later at the child custody trial it was said in their defence that if they had had an inkling that their family was doing wrong or that they were in any way out of the bounds of normality, they would not have volunteered for the show.

To me this demonstrates what Comenius is warning against. Unless families are exposed to training and good examples to aim at, family leaders will work in a vacuum. They will assume that whatever they do is good, normal and adequate. In less crucial areas we routinely dole out rewards for excellence, why not the family?

As an example, Macleans Magazine produces an influential annual list of the best universities in Canada, as well as a list of the hundred best companies to work for. I know of no such journalistic work being done to rate and measure the best households. In their last survey of the best hundred employers, Macleans asked an interesting question of the bosses whose company had won: What was the worst job you have ever had? It transpires in the article that these executives had learned from their worst job what not to do. When they went on to better jobs and eventually became boss later on they were determined to improve upon what they had suffered. At least two of those interviewed had even come up with their own profit sharing plan. The conclusion of the article says,

"Top 100 executives Macleans talked to all have one thing in common: they recognize that their companies will never be better than the people who work there. That is why they are making sure that the suffering they endured at their bad workplaces was not in vain. They do not want the poor leadership, petty internal wars, deaf management and suffocating rules that drove them away from previous employers to drive away the best and brightest from the companies they work for now. It is not a bad way to check whether your workplace really is doing everything it should to keep workers happy and productive." ("How backstabbers, evil bosses and dumb rules taught our top firms what not to do", )

If a survey of the best hundred families were taken, would their members tell a similar story? It is impossible to say, since nobody in our corporate run, privately owned press is bothering to pay any attention at all to the health of families. Unfortunately, advertisers see profit in the breakup and multiplication of households and are unwilling to support what might help keep families together. In the rest of the third paragraph, Comenius points out the harm that weakened families, concerned only with sustenance and pleasure, those embroiled the "pig sty" philosophy promoted by advertising, do to the broader political institutions that are derived from the family foundation,

"... This evil infection has a very damaging effect on the life of the state and defeats any effort to put an end to the world's confusions either by the spiritual power of the Word and the Keys ("Behold -- I have the keys of hell and of death" (Revelation 1:18)) or the political weapon of execution. Consequently if there is desire for reform, it is necessary to seek out and overcome this plague of tares that is rooted in the grass itself."

Comenius makes an interesting point. Healthy families, among other things, would bring down crime rates. If so, why not tie funding of prisons and punitive measures to investment in family support, the ultimate crime prevention? Would it pay to put one dollar reform the family for every dollar that goes into policing and the military? That is a question that is not being seriously considered, since eliminating the influence of materialist philosophy on the family, the "tares sown among the wheat," would go for the jugular of the reigning ideology.

As things are, it would be very inexpensive to devise a family constitution based on Comenius's plan in this chapter, and then distribute it on the Web. This could then form an open template to adapt to particular family websites and other virtual locations. That way a tested family constitution would be available to all families, who could then design households based on that model.

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