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Seán O’Néill, 32
Annandale, Virginia 22003

The difficulties experienced by the modern family and society at large have similar origins.


In my practice as a psychotherapist I am frequently asked to assist families in conflict. Their difficulties have various causes, the most common being disagreements over child raising, money, and intimacy. In all these conflicts, children, if they exist, are affected. Also, family members complain of losing the feeling of family closeness, the fundamental sense of group belonging we all need.

As newspaper stories reflect, these basic problems with the family are also evident in our communities and the nation. Our neighborhoods are not so safe and friendly as they once were. On the national level, Robert Putnam’s article titled “Bowling Alone” (Current magazine, June 1995) details another core problem, the erosion of citizens’ participation in organizations and politics. His whimsical title reflects his finding that, although more Americans are bowling today than ever before, they are bowling alone. Within the last four decades, league bowling has decreased by almost half.

In the same time frame, Putnam points out that Masonic membership has dropped 39%, the Jaycees 44%, and Red Cross volunteerism by more than 60%! The Elks, Moose, and Boy Scouts haven’t fared any better. Given these facts, it is reasonable to consider whether the loosening of interpersonal ties within America’s families is connected to these disturbing national trends. Clearly, it is.

The principles used in psychotherapy offer ways to understand these problems and to seek solutions. In psychotherapy, we assume people act the way they do for a reason that makes sense to them, even if not to us; that both positive and negative interpersonal experiences shape our expectations of others and our opinion of ourselves; and that everyone needs to feel loved, respected, and useful. These principles apply to all families, those that are healthy as well as those in need of help, and to our communities and nation.

For instance, both in our homes and in our communities, we expect the behavior of our children to reflect reasonable respect. But today it seems fashionable to cite the ideology that respect must be earned. Thus parents, teachers, and even police officers are often treated with disregard, presumably awaiting the moment when they satisfy an individual’s personal requirements for earned respect. Even granting that respect may be earned, what is lacking today is deference, the acknowledgment of authority and wisdom based on a position of responsibility related to the welfare of others.

Surely all parents have had moments of frustration in which they declared to an offspring, “Because I said so, that’s why, and I’m the parent!” We should not feel old-fashioned about saying such things, because they are a reminder of who is ultimately responsible for the home. Also, such encounters reinforce a fundamental lesson of life: sometimes, even though you are frustrated by something that you think is incorrect or unfair, you simply have to find a way to work with it. Few of life’s rewards come instantaneously and most require effort.

In our Masonic Lodges we are governed by the Worshipful Master. Although we, as Lodge members and officers, may not always agree with the Master, we defer to his authority in order to have a viable organization. Similarly, a civil home or society requires concepts of accepted authority, mutual cooperation, and simple good manners. Manners are behaviors exhibited expressly to enhance the comfort of others. The most refined and unalloyed expression of manners is empathy because to empathize is to experience within oneself how another person might be feeling. Teaching empathy within the family can be spontaneous and simple, such as a mother telling her young son not to hit his playmate, Bobby, and asking: “How would you like it if people hit you?”


Nations are made of communities which, in turn, are made of families composed of individuals. When any of them are ailing we may sensibly look to professionals to advise us, but we must also advocate common sense and wholesome values.


At the same time, children, while not permitted management functions, should be allowed to have feelings and thoughts that differ from those of their parents. Children are not miniature adults, but individuals with understandably limited judgment based on their lack of experience. If a child says, “I hate Bobby!” (or Aunt Sue, etc.) and the father replies, “No, you don’t!”, then little is learned by either side. Authority is being exercised unreasonably, and personal feeling is not given the validation it deserves. There is no explanation, understanding, or cooperation. Thus deference or respect is difficult on the part of the child, and the father fails to understand the child. Instead, the father should respond that though everyone, regardless of age, is entitled to personal feelings, civility demands good manners, mutual respect, and reasonable accommodation.

Well-functioning families display a sense of alliance or kindred spirit. Since these family members can trust each other and ask for assistance when needed, they experience both a profound sense of personal safety and a responsibility for one another. But if the members of the family--and, by extension, the community or nation--feel isolated from one another, every person seems a stranger to be viewed with suspicion. What is more chilling than hearing of an incident in which an injured or attacked person cried out for help but was ignored by everyone in the area? Surely one sign of alliance is the willingness to go out of one’s way in a difficult situation for the benefit of another. In Freemasonry, for instance, there is our obligation to come to the aid of a distressed Brother.

Healthy groups use rituals to reinforce the idea that the individual is part of a whole. This is evident in traditions such as the family, for example, having Sunday breakfasts together, groups saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag in unison and, of course, Masons observing fraternal protocol and sharing Lodge or Temple rituals. We do these things because we belong to the particular group involved. Also, our repetition of these rituals bonds the members of the group together and, consequently, strengthens the group as a whole.

In the process of psychotherapy, family members reaffirm the sense of family unity and accept a mutual code of proper behavior. This may be specifically religious, for instance, a family’s faith tradition. Or, as in Freemasonry, this bonding may be spiritual at its base but flexible at the point where individuals define the nature of their own faith. Similarly, members of political parties, social groups, civic associations, etc., find common points of agreement, exercise deference, and observe good manners whatever personal differences they may have. Most importantly, honesty and integrity must be emphasized to effect positive change in our homes, associations, neighborhoods, and nation.

Revelations of political corruption, meaningless street violence, and drug and alcohol abuse among our youth indicate that the moral imperatives that once held us together are breaking down. To slow and even reverse this disintegration, we must make sure that, first of all, our homes have a firm and growing foundation. This can be accomplished by such initial steps as family attendance at religious services, by families setting aside at least an hour each week for family discussions of relevant topics, and by parents serving as models of ethical decision making for their children.

Nations are made of communities which in turn are made of families composed of individuals. When any of them are ailing, we may sensibly look to professionals to advise us, but we must also advocate common sense and wholesome values. The family is the jewel of civilization and, like Freemasonry, offers an unparalleled opportunity for a future of enhanced human relations.


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