Tolstoy opened up Anna Karenina with the observation that happy families are all alike; that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But he got it exactly backwards. Only happy families are glorious in their uniqueness, because they’re the ones who are actually growing and producing individuals. It’s the unhappy families who are all alike, locked in a kind of spiritual trench warfare against themselves.
But it’s not surprising that Tolstoy got it backwards: that’s the instinctive thing to do when you’re looking in a mirror. Happy families look alike to those trapped in unhappy families for the same reason that rich people all look happy to the poor: poverty is so overwhelming that they can’t imagine being rich and still being miserable. Unhappy families look different because the words and the drama change while remaining monotonously the same. It is always the same people upset about the same things that they will never let go. From outside, it may look new: from inside, it always feels like, “not this again!” I remember the endless fights between my grandmother and grandfather. It was always a different issue but always, always the same: he was never doing what she wanted him to, or listening to her. And it was impossible for him to because what she was saying was never exactly what she was thinking, so why should he have even tried?
And the reason for this is that when God gives us a family, he gives us, in a sense, a mirror: another person who sees us from the outside and displays our virtues and our flaws to us. In fact, there’s two types of mirroring going on, and it’s hard to say which one is more intense, the active or the passive.
The active mirroring is easy to define: it’s when the people around you criticize you and react to your actions. They tell you they don’t like the things you love doing, or they do like the things you hate doing. When you do wrong, they let you know you’re wrong. And sometimes even when you do right, they let you know you’re wrong. They’re mirrors, and what’s more, distorted mirrors, but with some semblance of truth.
The passive mirroring is more subtle, but also more constant. We all have things we hate about ourselves. And because we’re all human, our family members will share some of those traits, reflecting them back at us. Talking too much. Slurping food. Hogging the biggest share of dessert. Passive-aggressively ignoring chores.
And our instinct in both cases is usually to smash the mirror for what we see in it. To attack and attack until the mirror shows us only what we want to see. This leads to knuckles cut to ribbons, and our image being smashed. It is far harder to do what we must: to change ourselves in response to that which we hate to see.
Of course, in any family, you’re not the only mirror, nor the only person. Sometimes, you also will be attacked for what your family members see in you. And while you may have to stop the attack, it’s vital to remember that they’re really not attacking you. They’re attacking the mirror, and trying to destroy the terrible image of themselves that they cannot bear. Because if they can make it your fault, it doesn’t have to be theirs anymore.
Oh, God, protect us in our families from our urge to break mirrors that have done nothing but show us as we are.