In the Q&A period following a recent talk given at Notre Dame, renowned philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre mentioned a troubling arc in his conversations with students over the span of a long teaching career. Initially, when getting to know the students who came to his office, he asked where they came from, and he would receive long explanations in story form explaining their family background. As the decades passed, the stories became increasingly shorter until they could be answered in a single word: “Miami, or Pittsburgh, or wherever it was…” Since he retired some time ago, he demurred in believing that, today, even a town would suffice to explain one’s background, suggesting rather that young people would be more defined by their cell phones.
While he was certainly playing for effect, the possibility is troubling. How do members of the upcoming generation describe themselves? How do they form their ideas, their values, and their worldviews? While adolescents have always pushed back on their families’ values as they tested the waters of independence, parents today increasingly find their input in competition with that of total strangers at younger and younger ages.
This is not meant to be a screed against screens, for they are ever with us—even the schools have found them invaluable in teaching and tracking outcomes. What we do need to consider is what we are doing to create healthy networks of human relationships, so that our children are not stray electrons looking for a charge, but well-connected persons strengthened by bonds of meaning and love.
Once upon a time, a dominant culture would provide that sense of belonging, but our country has a long history of prizing individuality above conformity, and now firmly champions the vague idol of “diversity” as a way of life. Unfortunately, in such a setting, myriad individual identities lean towards becoming little hot-houses of variety, rejecting an understanding of authentic culture, which alone can sustain, enrich, and grow—for each new sprig is encouraged to define himself apart from the root plant. Culture at best has been reduced to recipes and rituals, shared as oddities or private remembrances stripped of their deeper context or value.
Since parents today are launching children into what is being described as a “liquid culture,” we must reflect deeply about our values, and prioritize teaching what is good and true to the younger members of our families—not just what we find interesting, attractive, or amusing. Those things certainly have their place in a family culture, but it is urgent that we effectively transmit that which is most meaningful and of lasting value. Why do you live where you live and who came before you? Why do you choose as you choose and who inspired you? And especially in this month dedicated to the Holy Souls, What do we know about previous generations of our families and what were their virtues, their dreams, and their highest hopes? Wouldn’t these questions make for interesting conversations in the holiday meals to come?
Sharing family stories, digging into the ancient lore, honestly discussing the choices made by others—not as gossip or criticism, but as an honest inquiry into what helps a family flourish and what causes pain—brings valuable information down to the next generation. Rather than immersing ourselves in celebrity escapades, we must encourage the younger members of our family to know their own personal history, and understand that these human ties are integral to their identity. Often, so much emphasis is placed on providing our children with “wings” that we forget the value of “anchors.”
As Catholics, of course, our families should be anchored in the saints as well—those whose choices are the most enlightening. For the ultimate answer to “Where do you come from?” is God, and all culture is meant to illustrate the wonder of our divine Origin and beat a path back to Him in the end. Families, ultimately, should facilitate that journey by limiting the aimless drift, and by helping each member to find his identity in his heavenly home—a task best done face to face in an authentic communion of love. Call on those saints to help!
Mrs. Kineke is a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich, and can be found online at feminine-genius.com.