Everyone praises “the family” as a source of deep meaning. Much of this praise is platitudinous, if not blatant hypocrisy, but there is a foundation for these sentiments, despite their expedience as pretense, sanctimony, and worse.
Although the family is the most fundamental social unit that responds to a variety of biological imperatives, its importance is not reducible to reproduction, raising children, or managing households. Human beings continuously confront the threat of a loss of meaning. We are psychologically fragile with anxiety, depression, purposelessness, and ennui always lurking, probing for weak points in the self’s armor. We insulate ourselves from psychological collapse by seeking a source of meaning that is unconditional, that can’t be taken away or subject to changing circumstances. The blood ties of family are like that. One’s membership in a family is an incontrovertible fact established by birth, and you can never not be connected by blood even if you repudiate the relationship. If one needs a sense of belonging-come-what-may, blood ties guarantee it.
But to invest meaning in such a vacuous membership, in the absence of a more robust attachment, shows how fragile and desperate we are to hold onto meaning. There need be nothing of the substance of one’s life or individuality bound up in blood relationships, and the idea that one acquires esteem through ancestral connections is silly mysticism.
The family bonds established through actual life circumstances rather than “blood” ties are a more substantial source of meaning. The bonds between parents and children are established through nurturing activities, mutual dependence, and unconditional love all of which require and reinforce trust. That trust is one of life’s greatest assets and the foundation of a healthy personality. To the extent families develop unconditional attachments and the trust that arises from them, they are a form of meaning as reliable as anything in life can be.
However, much of what we call love is not quite of the unconditional sort—marriages go south, friendships wither, some parents push their children away. Most of our friendships and family relationships cannot be sustained without conditions. Bad behavior is corrosive. Yet, loving relationships, to be fully meaningful, need an anchor less subject to contingency, less subject to being severed, than other kinds of relationships. That need makes trust their most essential ingredient. Trust to go the long, hard way. Trust that damage can be repaired. The esteem earned because one is worthy of trust. Trust allows conditional love to approximate unconditional love and thus serve as a reliable source of meaning.
The fickleness of romance if not supplemented by trust is no substitute.