Why Families Fall Apart
By John McKnight
Over the past few days, it has been hard to dodge reminders about the tragedy of 9/11 and the stories of lives, families and communities that were ripped apart. It has been hard for some to overcome the harrowing time of our nation’s struggle, but for many others, it has given inspiration in remembering just what family means and why it is so important to our existence as a community. State of the Re:Union turns to John McKnight of Abundant Community to bring the meaning of family back into focus.
One day, when my mother was in her 70’s, she told me a story about how things had changed in her small town since she was a girl. She said,
“When I was a girl, things were very different. When we were feeling ill, my grandmother knew what would cure almost anything and all of us turned to her for healing advice.
When there was a dispute or trouble between family members, we turned to Uncle Charlie who listened, understood, and counseled us. He would remind us that our family’s sticking together was the most important thing we had.
Most important things I learned were from our neighbors and family. School helped, but the way I really came to understand the world was from the folks around me.
Whenever the family gathered, each of the kids was expected to display some talent for the group – singing, reciting a poem, doing acrobatics, playing a musical instrument. We didn’t think of it as entertainment. It was the enjoyment of sharing our gifts.
Everyone had backyard gardens and we had wonderful get-togethers when we picked and canned the food that got us through the winter.
My dad and brother built our house.
Today, that seems to have all faded away. Now, people use only doctors when they are ill and grandmothers are ignored.
People go to lawyers and psychologists when there are problems and Uncle Charlie is ignored.
Now, people think schools raise a child so children ignore their neighbors and their family.
Now, people enjoy television and movies and they ignore the gifts and talents of the people around them.
Food comes from the supermarket and McDonald’s and the backyard is for grass. There are no wonderful canning parties anymore.
Houses are built by architects and contractors who never make a house that really fits a family like the one my dad and brother built.”
I think my mother was reminding me that her community was a productive place.
I think my mother was reminding me that her community was the producer of much of its health, problem solving, education, talent, food and housing. It was a productive place. Now, she observes a community made up of consumers who believe that health is in a hospital, problems are the domain of lawyers and therapists, education is produced by schools, enjoyment is produced by electronic media, food is provided by supermarkets and a home is built by professionals.
Hidden within my mother’s observations is the fact that she is describing the loss of basic functions belonging to families and neighborhoods. Most have become incompetent in terms of doing the work of families and neighborhoods. The cost of this incompetence is families and neighborhoods that have no real function.
No group persists when it has no reason to be together. Therefore, if families perform no functions we can predict that they will fall apart.
We delude ourselves if we think our high divorce rates are caused by interpersonal problems and disagreements. It’s not that people are not getting along, it is that they don’t need each other because they have no functions. They are just isolated, unproductive, dependent consumers who happen to live in the same house.
John McKnight is an expert on communities. An Ohio native who currently lives near Chicago, he has spent decades organizing communities and researching them, primarily in the Windy City itself. In the course of his career, he mobilized neighborhoods during the civil rights movement, wrote several books about community development, created a center for urban affairs at Northwestern University, and even taught the current President a thing or two about advocacy. (Yes, it’s true: way back when, a young and eager Barack Obama interned at McKnight’s training program for community organizers in southeast Chicago). If that’s not enough, he recently co-authored a book called “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.”