Rebirth of Reason


Going Home... A Few Thoughts on Family Values
by Michael Stuart Kelly

I would love to see a little more literature devoted to family matters from an Objectivist viewpoint. Especially normal family matters. I can almost hear the catcalls starting to reign down from the "lone wolf" types and category-hardened Objectivists, so I will ask you to bear with me a minute. I am a "lone wolf" type myself and have lived by "doing it my way" all my adult life.

Let’s start with an analogy. When I was studying music in college back in the 70’s, I received constant bombardment from all kinds of avant-garde type intellectual garbage. I went to school to learn professional skills so I could work at what I loved in the real world, however I received most everything but that. I won’t go into all those pearls of wisdom here. But there was one idea that was relentlessly hammered into my head back then – tonal music is dead.

Well, I couldn’t help looking around the society I lived in. Although popular music was rather distant from my own interests, I couldn’t help wondering why everybody was spending more and more money on something that’s dead. Dead things were supposed to die out, not grow. Nobody was forcing all these people to do it either. They were buying this stuff because they wanted it.

So I concluded that maybe there was something inherent in tonal music that was filling a human need. Maybe it was based on the way humans perceive music. Not very scientific but pretty damn obvious.

Now let’s do the same thing with family. Look around you at American entertainment. Or the world’s entertainment for that matter. How many TV shows focus on family? How many movies? Novels? The list of works is countless. Wherever you look, you can usually find the image of a normal family somewhere, even if it is only a remote background. People voluntarily pay gazillions of dollars for this every year. Examples are so numerous that it’s hard to settle on any particular one.

There’s an undeniable fact, too. Unless you are an orphan, you come from some kind of family. (Even an orphanage is a type of family.) That is an experience we all share. That is where we all first came into contact with just about everything essential we needed to become adults. Some of us then became parents later on, but that issue opens another cans of worms for another time. Besides, child rearing is already covered a bit in Objectivist literature.

The family is a cornerstone of our social organization. From what I see, there is something almost inherent in it that fills a human need. All gay people also come from some kind of family. Now I am seeing a struggle for gays to establish and legitimize a family structure suited to their particular non-reproductive condition.

So what happens to a young mind in a family that embraces an exciting philosophy like Objectivism? What does that person get that will help him or her better deal with the family environment? Unfortunately not much.

Before going on, let me be very clear that I am not trying to debunk anything. I am trying to add to a body of knowledge and principles that I accept and practice by asking significant questions. My interest is not in detracting. If I see a hole, I have to point to it and say, "Something needs to be done about that." Maybe I can do something about it but so can others. This philosophy belongs to all of us to the extent we embrace it. Ayn Rand’s magnificent work is pioneer work. You can adopt it as it is, but you can also forge it and fill it in where needed so that you can better live by it – day to day, everyday, here and now.

What self-interest philosophical fare do we get about families? Well, there is the observation that you can choose your friends and mates but you can’t choose the family you are born into. The implication is that family type love is somehow inferior to love for the chosen. Not very useful at the family dinner table. Anyway, I think it is apples and oranges. What are you supposed to do with the love you feel, say, for a brother or sister who is extremely religious, for example? Ignore it? Chastise yourself for it? How do you reconcile the fact that you even feel a love like that with Objectivism, which you chose so carefully and passionately as a guideline for living?

To be fair, Nathaniel Branden covers several aspects exceptionally well, especially the romantic love part and overcoming pain and guilt from traumatic interactions between parents and children. Also, I have seen other sporadic Objectivist sources on child rearing, marriage and so forth. I know there is more out there and I would love to learn about it. I certainly intend to seek it out. But I see so little presence of family living in the big issues of mainstream Objectivist thought.

One of the marvelous benefits I received from Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand is that she gave me a glimpse of the family lives of my real-life heroes (which includes her). I could relate. I could identify. I could look at my own life and ask myself questions that I had been avoiding because I had not arrived at a reference (not "evading," please!). I could do it on my own terms too – dealing with things that I knew from my own life. Sort of like coming out of a fog.

Another thing. There is a rather limited rational-self-interest type idea I have encountered, which is: love between children and parents is based solely on fulfilling survival and reproductive needs. The implication is that it abates after such needs are met so that individuals can then get on with fulfilling their own selfish happiness.

I believe it goes much deeper than that. When I look at animals in nature, OK. Maybe. But when I look around the society I live in, I see families. I see all this family entertainment in the world that is voluntarily consumed. I see people seeking to put a family together and keep it together. (Isn’t that a classic Objectivist definition of a value?) Especially, when I look deep into my own heart after sifting through concepts piled on concepts and more concepts, I have to conclude that there exists a biological love that is very human.

I don’t have a clear definition of biological love right now. I am not sure that "biological" should even be the term I am seeking. I am going on observation and introspection for the time being. A definition will have to come later - maybe from somewhere else. Right now, I can truthfully report that if I verbalize what I feel when I look at my own parents, it is something like, "That is where I came from. That is part of me." My brother, "That is something really like me. I am part of that." As I go on to my aunts and uncles and cousins it gets weaker but it is there. "Significant other" love entails romantic love and there is oodles of Objectivist material on that. I don’t recall "family" being focused on much in discussions of romantic love, though.

Maybe you can overcome and annul (outgrow?) biological love with love based on choice or sexual attraction or whatever. You can certainly enhance it if family members share your intellectual values. But biological love does exist. It is real. At this point I have more questions than answers. There is work to be done.

I want to mention a personal affair. This is to illustrate the high price that can be paid when an essential issue like family is not dealt with in a chosen philosophy, regardless of how rational it is.

I am presently sitting in my parents’ home writing on their computer. I have been gone for over 30 years. I have kept sporadic contact with them over time, but a couple of months ago I literally saw my brother for the first time in 29 years. It is pretty hard to describe what that feels like. It is very confusing. Everyone got older and I wasn’t there when it happened. My God, my mother suffered a stroke and recovered and my father lost an eye while I was gone. My brother’s children grew up and I didn’t even see three of them when they were born. According to what I used to believe, I’m not supposed to feel anything. But I can only say that this has left me with such a deep sad sense of loss…

I’m not blaming anybody. I chose this. I chose it with eyes wide open based on the rational values I adopted. Now I feel that those values were just not enough. Not that they were wrong. I simply did not take family into account when I took off to conquer my worlds.

Soon after I returned to the USA a few months ago, I was at a friend’s house when Barbara Walters appeared on TV being interviewed by Oprah (of all things). She was asked about how she spent quality time with her daughter and she answered something to the effect that she was not interested in quality time – just time. Time to share little things and time to talk about nothing at all. That hit me very hard. Thirty years is an awfully long time. I’m blessed even to have a family left.

So I wonder about biological love. Maybe it should be approached a little differently than "value-recognition" love. I know that it certainly won’t go away just because there are few explicit rational philosophical definitions and principles to deal with it. Even Ayn Rand wrote somewhere that love is exception making. I don’t know, maybe time, tolerance, nurturing, flocking… So many questions.

On the philosophical side, my parents are no world-shaking heroes. They climbed out of the coal mining poverty of the Appalachian Mountains and pursued the American Dream. They worked their way solidly into the suburban middle class, stayed there and retired there. And they did it the hard way, nine-to-five, everyday, with overtime when they could get it. My mother is a Christian and my father’s philosophy could best be summed up as a typical subscriber to Reader’s Digest. Neither would give two hoots for Ayn Rand, Objectivism or the whole shebang. They will not even read this article (if I can help it). I certainly don’t hold these thoughts against them.

I look at them and see through the years… past my fictional hero role models… past Hank Reardon’s dysfunctional family, Howard Roark without one and all the others characters I admire… past all my learning… past the arduous striving in another culture… past some very hard-won triumphs and devastating heartbreaks… past failed relationships… I look at my parents and tears well up. I am fiercely proud of them both and I love them dearly.

In a few days my business will call and I will have to go back into the world. I’ll definitely be back here soon. But maybe for now I’ll linger just a little while longer…
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