The Nuclear Family, Communal Breakdown, & Mysticism

The communal structure that humans evolved in is fragmenting, from large family groups, to small nuclear families, with damaging effects. We’re losing mystical communion and thus community as well.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic by award-winning journalist David Brooks about the breakdown of the nuclear family. His article was perhaps mistitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” At first I thought this meant that he thought that families were basically bad, but as I read I understood that he was saying that families, as such, were actually very good, but in the last few decades of our society’s shift from extended family structures to nuclear families (a married couple and their children), the benefits of family life have broken down considerably in many ways. Brooks summarizes:

We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor. This article is about that process, and the devastation it has wrought—and about how Americans are now groping to build new kinds of family and find better ways to live.

-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

I largely agree with Brooks. Our society was once ruled by large families, which lived together, under the same roof, on the family farm or in the family business, and supported one another in untold ways, financially, emotionally, socially, familially, health-wise, etc. But, according to Brooks’ dating, during the 20th century families gradually transitioned to more splintered images of their former selves. People moved into the city to get work, and so took only their closest family members with them. Urbanization drove nuclearization of the family. Families fragmented, and since about 1965 we’ve seen a deterioration of larger family cohesiveness have a direct impact on the individual members of the family, which is most of middle class and lower class people. People are living “alone” more and more.

In Part 2 of his article, Brooks notes how humans evolved to be very social creatures; for ages we have lived in larger clans, tribes, extended families.

In the beginning was the band. For tens of thousands of years, people commonly lived in small bands of, say, 25 people, which linked up with perhaps 20 other bands to form a tribe. People in the band went out foraging for food and brought it back to share. They hunted together, fought wars together, made clothing for one another, looked after one another’s kids. In every realm of life, they relied on their extended family and wider kin.

-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

But he also notes that the ways people connected together into “families” extended far beyond their closest relatives.

Except they didn’t define kin the way we do today. We think of kin as those biologically related to us. But throughout most of human history, kinship was something you could create.

-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

In other words, the definition of “family” as generally consisting of just two parents and their children is a very recent creation. For most of human history, what was considered family was far greater, including not just those who you were closely related to by blood, but others who you lived with, or nearby. The entire clan or tribe was considered your “family,” each individual as close to you as we are today with our siblings or parents. This kind of relationship is perhaps best reflected today in such groups as our church congregations, but even those are not as close in relationship as these tight-knit traditional human bands.

But there is another more mystical reason that Brooks notes why traditional human clans or kinships had a much more extended notion of family.

Extended families in traditional societies may or may not have been genetically close, but they were probably emotionally closer than most of us can imagine. In a beautiful essay on kinship, Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, says that kin in many such societies share a “mutuality of being.” The late religion scholar J. Prytz-Johansen wrote that kinship is experienced as an “inner solidarity” of souls. The late South African anthropologist Monica Wilson described kinsmen as “mystically dependent” on one another. Kinsmen belong to one another, Sahlins writes, because they see themselves as “members of one another.”

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-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

In traditional societies, there was spirituality that helped transform people’s sense of identity, belonging, and connection to extend much further. How do you suppose people in these traditional societies came to recognize that “mystically dependent” “mutuality of being,” “inner solidarity,” of the recognition that they were “members of one another”?

I suggest it involved a deep transfiguration of consciousness, a rite of initiation into contemplation, a death and transcendence of the subjective self of the mind, so that consciousness comes to directly perceive and know the unitary nature of its being, of shared humanity, of shared or collective consciousness, of deep nondual communal identity. It showed them directly that they were not just their individual self, but the larger group.

We seem to have generally lost this in our modern disenchanted technological scientistic consumeristic capitalistic Western culture. But I have hope that recent emerging interest in mindfulness and meditation is helping to bring it back to the forefront.

It is well known that many traditional societies had initiations or rites of passage for youth to pass from adolescence into adulthood, and sometimes these rites were quite grueling and difficult, sometimes spending days in the wilderness surviving alone. The reason is perhaps that the youth had to feel as if their isolated separated “self” had died (sometimes quite literally), and that they had been reborn as a new person at-one with their community. They were ushered out of their sense of being a single individual child, and passed over into life as an adult in the tribe, a connected member of the society.

We don’t have these kinds of initiations or rites anymore in our culture. There are perhaps some similarities in such things as military bootcamp, fraternity/sorority hazings, and religious rites like baptism, or bar mitzvah, or even marriage. But these seem to be faint shadows of their former counterparts in human history. The result is that now we have many children growing up into adults without ever transitioning into adulthood, without that initiation, without that rite of passage, without that death of the individual and rebirth into the community, into the larger family of humanity. Thus, our collective sense of family, of community, of belonging, of identity, has shrunken tremendously, and usually is attached to our local church, our exclusive religion, our country, or our political party.

Brooks finds potential answers for the breakdown in the family structure in new forms of family, forged families, families that we “create,” that we choose to live with, in intentional communities, in living together as extended families, etc. We are choosing to be connected again.

When hyper-individualism kicked into gear in the 1960s, people experimented with new ways of living that embraced individualistic values. Today we are crawling out from the wreckage of that hyper-individualism—which left many families detached and unsupported—and people are experimenting with more connected ways of living, with new shapes and varieties of extended families.

-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

Times are changing. We are seeking more connection, belonging, group identity, social safety nets, communal living.

Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time. This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin. It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.

-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

I agree with Brooks that the status quo will not last. We have not evolved to live separately and singly in our own disparate nuclear families, under separate roofs, in houses that are separated by thick walls, spread out in sprawling cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods emptied of all people who go into town to work. We want connection. We want community. We want Love. But in some cases we want to have our cake and eat it too, as Brooks notes.

Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible. We’ve seen the wreckage left behind by the collapse of the detached nuclear family. We’ve seen the rise of opioid addiction, of suicide, of depression, of inequality—all products, in part, of a family structure that is too fragile, and a society that is too detached, disconnected, and distrustful. And yet we can’t quite return to a more collective world. The words the historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg wrote in 1988 are even truer today: ‘Many Americans are groping for a new paradigm of American family life, but in the meantime a profound sense of confusion and ambivalence reigns.’

-David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake”

Such is the paradox. I do think we can come to a more collective world, but it means becoming directly conscious of our collective identity and being. It takes a transformation of consciousness itself. I don’t think there are any other workarounds, bandaids, shortcuts, replacements, alternatives than this. They’ve been tried throughout history, and we always return to mysticism and mystical experience, which were part of the rites of passage, to realize who we really are collectively and who we can become by working together.

The forces of the separate self and unitive Self must be balanced in a sense. The separate self must be transcended and included in the higher/deeper collective consciousness. Currently we seem to be falling and disintegrating on the side of separatism, individualism, ego, selfishness, and we are losing self-transcendence, and the realization of our shared communal Being. I think our sense of confusion and ambivalence will continue to reign until we return to our mystical shared being, this “mutuality of being,” as “members of one another.”

Christians might recognize this as the “Body of Christ.” Buddhists might call it the “Sangha.” It is perhaps the Neoplatonic One, the “Holy One of Israel.” It is the realization that we are One which will compel us into community once again.


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2 thoughts on “The Nuclear Family, Communal Breakdown, & Mysticism

  1. I think the past living together as extended family was all about survival. As survival needs became easier to take care of within the nuclear family it was easier to break out. For me, I think it was good to break free from a family steeped in fundamentalist religion, giving me the opportunity to explore safely, outside prying eyes, many different ideas and worldviews, even to become acquainted with the mystics. But I also see the paradox in that once one begins to expand their worldview, they also see the need for living in wholesome community. So, perhaps the rise of the nuclear family had a purpose, but the time has come to grow beyond it, or should I say, cycling back to a now more mature, wise and peaceful experience of communal Oneness. Just thinking out loud…

    1. Well said, Amy. As Jesus said, if we do not in a sense leave our father and mother, and follow Christ, we are not worthy of Christ (Matthew 10:37, Luke 14:26). We must differentiate from our “parents,” not remain attached to them and rely on their identity, but strike out into the wilderness ourselves, into the unknown, enter the abyss of our own Hero’s Journey to come to our own realization, and then integrate back into the community, the Body of Christ, the sangha. Transcend and then include is often the theme. It is a going out into the “mount” for solitude and contemplation, and then returning to the community and marketplace to share the Love one has realized there, bringing all into this Oneness.

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