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May 7, 2009
In The Village
The truly happy family
by Orson Scott Card

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said it with the first line of his novel Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Actually, he said it in Russian -- this is just the most common translation -- and of course he was exactly wrong. Following a very few patterns, unhappy families seem to chart almost identical downward spirals into misery or dissolution.

Happy families, however, seem to find the resources to overcome obstacles, conflicts, griefs, and the natural cycles of life.

I suppose it's arrogant of me, as a lesser novelist, to say so, but ... what a failure of imagination on Tolstoy's part!

Of course, he did live in a different time, when everyone tried hard to create and maintain the appearance of happiness, and only a few courted scandal by opening their private failures to public inspection.

But even then it should have been obvious, if only from the scandals themselves, that there is an oppressive sameness about failed families, while I find an inspiring variety in the families that are determined to succeed.

Perhaps my disagreement with Tolstoy is merely a sloppiness of definition. What do we mean by a "happy" family?

If we mean one in which each individual never knows a moment's grief, frustration, anger, disappointment, resentment, envy, loneliness, or suffering, then "happy family" is a term without a referent in the real world.

Even if such people existed, they wouldn't even know they were happy, having never experienced anything else. In fact, knowing what I do of human nature, I'm quite sure such imaginary people would soon work themselves into a frenzy of suffering over the fact that their lives were so boring!

A happy family will always contain unhappy individuals, because such is the nature of human life. We always want at least some things that cannot be had; we always lose things we wish we could keep.

The natural course of life leads to suffering and loss.

Our bodies don't do all we want them to do; we suffer ills and pains.

There is no such thing as a satisfying career, because careers by their nature can never satisfy us for more than a moment at a time. When you achieve the pinnacle of your ambition, the thrill lasts about fourteen seconds, and then you cast about wondering what to try for next.

Either we don't have all the children we wanted, our children make choices that we wish they hadn't, or they do everything perfectly -- and then move away to start their own families, leaving us comparatively lonely and purposeless.

And yet people going through all these natural woes may be living in a genuinely happy family.

Those of us who have suffered the worst thing in the world -- the death of a child -- are perhaps most keenly aware of the great paradox: It is while suffering the worst of grief that we feel most keenly the joy of family love.

The world gets confused and thinks that joy or happiness are identical to pleasure or amusement. Wicked, miserable, cynical, lonely people can smile and laugh; happy, generous, hopeful, loving people can weep.

The measure of a joyful family life is not in our transient emotions, but rather in our lasting commitments.

Let me give you a seemingly trivial example -- the current hit movie 17 Again. The premise is silly enough -- a man whose family is falling apart is given back his seventeen-year-old body in order to fix his life.

Only he quickly discovers that fixing his life actually comes from fixing the broken lives of his family. Because he is now (anonymously) their peer in high school, he can see what his children's lives are actually like. He can see his love-starved daughter's willingness to give herself to a brutal, exploitative teenage boy; he can see how his son's lack of confidence hides his own talents from him.

And when he befriends his own son and comes home and sees his wife through new eyes, he realizes talents and desires in her that he had been blind to before, because of his own self-obsession.

With his new understanding, he is able to help them achieve new visions of their own possibilities. He helps his son become a good basketball player and achieve a different social position in school; he helps his daughter stand up for herself and, through the heartbreak of being dumped by an unworthy boyfriend, raise her standard of what she expects from a man in her life.

And he takes the first steps toward healing his marriage, by showing his wife that the despairing man he used to be has now been replaced by a husband and father filled with commitment to and hope in his marriage and family.

Because of the magical story element, this looks like fantasy. But the power of this simple story is this: There isn't one thing he achieves through his magical opportunity that he could not have been achieving all along by overcoming his own selfishness and focusing on his family.

He could only find individual happiness by loving those who needed and depended on him the most.

Nobody involved with 17 Again would make any claim that they were creating great art at the level of a Leo Tolstoy.

Oddly enough, however, I think there is more truth about happiness in life in 17 Again than there is in Anna Karenina, if only because 17 Again actually knows what happiness is.

No offense, but Tolstoy was an idiot compared to, say, David O. McKay, who said, "No other success can compensate for failure in the home."

The other side of that is: If your family is committed to helping each other achieve worthy goals, then nothing the world can do to you will take away that fundamental joy.

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