“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
This, the opening line to Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, is packed full of meaning, and the rest of the book expounds in story form what he means. We read of one miserable family owing its pain to the self-absorption of the husband. In another, it’s because of the internal angst of a middle-aged wife that drives her into the arms of a young man. In another, it’s the insatiable desire for success of the politician husband. Each family is truly uniquely miserable in its own way.
But is it true that all happy families are alike? Is it true that there is a model for how to be a family, and the degree to which a family resembles that model dictates the level of happiness the family will experience?
My hunch is that Tolstoy is correct. I believe that God has created families to relate in a certain way. Happy families relate to one another the way the Godhead relates to itself. Happy families love one another the way God loves others. They are full of sacrificial love and concern for the well being of the each other. Their relationships are rooted in commitment, and the culture is one of honesty and grace. In these systems, health, not perfection, is possible, and happiness can emerge.
The problem that Tolstoy so eloquently highlights through his story-telling is that the “happy-family” model is unnatural for us. We don’t just fall into it. We have to work at it. Monogamy is a commitment we have to stick to, and it requires the disciplining of our passions. Sacrificial service towards our spouses and our children is inconvenient and at times demands the delaying of our dreams. Love often times looks more like death than it does like lust. Following the “happy-family” model is hard work and it takes discipline.
But as I read through Anna Karenina and see the truth about families in its pages, it’s obvious that this hard work is well worth it. Whenever we veer from God’s path of familial happiness, the pain is inevitable, if sometimes delayed.