Letter to a Friend: On Family

My friend,

I never got a chance to tell you this, but I do it now because I think you should listen. I’ve thought about it because of my mother, who is dying in a hospital. I’ve thought about it because of my daughter, who is starting her life. And I write to you because of your wife and your son — because of you. I write to you because of your family.

 

Watching my daughter and meditating on what I saw led me to the conclusion that children are the great propellers of civilization. I don’t mean the truism that it is through them that we perpetuate our species. What I want to say is that children were responsible, historically, for the creation of the family core (father, mother and children), and that it was this family core that made modern civilization possible.

Man was able to develop his intellect because of one simple fact: he has a big head. The problem is that such a head would cause women to stretch their pelvis too far, preventing agile movement and bipedalism (imagine here an individual of the species Homo habilis, about 2,600,000 years ago). This feature underwent pressure from natural selection and did not become a human characteristic: women could not run away from predators anymore, so the gene was not perpetuated in the species. How then did man develop his huge head?

Scientists say that for a human baby to be born fully developed, he would have to stay about 20 months in his mother’s womb, but, of course, it would not pass through the pelvis. The solution was to leave the mother’s womb before the right time and continue the baby’s development on the outside; an extremely vulnerable baby, needing full protection for a long time. What was needed to make this possible?

The family.

With such a long period of vulnerability, demanding extreme care from the mother, love between mother and child gradually developed. But not only that. The father had to help support the family. He had to bring food and protection. This need for action from father and mother also developed human intelligence (as in a feedback loop). They now had to protect not a sagacious “little monkey,” but a helpless human baby. The family was developing.

Now imagine what would happen if man ignored his family. Even if the family survived, what would happen to the species? You can think of today’s times. What would happen if all men lived a licentious life, getting women pregnant and never settling down? The species would certainly be preserved. But man would not have evolved as a man (Aristotle would say “qua man”). He would remain at the animal level, for mere survival would suffice. But man is man because he is rational, and man’s flourishing is not the maintenance of the species: it is his social, political, technological evolution, that is, all that differentiates us from animals and makes us so special. If man had never established himself in a home and had never devoted himself to his family, man would not have created what he created, neither in terms of technology nor of institutions in general. Man would never have been man.

All kinds of family institutions have been attempted throughout history. The family as we see it today, “man + woman + children”, did not arise immediately by the sheer magic of birth. First, the child was only of the mother, then of the clan, then of the mother together with her brothers and her parents, and only afterwards did the child become of the mother and the father. It is argued that the institution of marriage developed with the advent of property, and with man’s need to bequeath his property to a legitimate son: hence marriage and the need of celibacy and female fidelity throughout history. This has certainly influenced the development of the family, as well as several other factors, but my point here is that, regardless of the conjunction of factors that generated it, it is the family core what makes possible the realization of man as man.

Brother, this letter is getting too long and I have class now, so I’d better go. But, please, tell me if what I wrote makes any sense to you and if I may continue later. All I want is for you to think more broadly about what you are doing, now that you are coming back to your family. I want you to realize how RIGHT is your decision to try once more — honestly, I hope never to see your certainty faltering again.

By staying with your family, you are making part of this amazing human history. By making your family happy, you are laying the foundations for realizing your own full potential: the life of a man as a man must live it.

Be well, my brother!

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