An ad flashed across the TV screen, touting the "car for the modern-day family — whatever that means." It featured adaptable seating for as few as two and as many as seven people, recognizing that families these days can be anything from the conventional parents with two children, through single parents with children, to multiple combinations of partners, children, grandparents, and/or "fur kids" (domestic animals)! Families are always big news, but most often the media features distressing aspects of family changes due to the pressure of economic circumstances or the stresses of modern life leading to the disintegration of cherished notions of what family relationships should be. Are the newspapers right? What is the inner nature of this most fundamental human relationship?
Recent social studies in Australia, typical of many Western countries, indicate that, contrary to popular belief, most people still live in family units with two parents. The fastest growing family type is single-parent families as a consequence of increased divorce rates over past decades. Another major trend is people committing to marriage later in their relationship than was traditionally accepted. More women are delaying having children, and better educated women are having fewer children and are more likely to remain childless. Children are more likely to stay at home into young adulthood before establishing their own households, and they often return periodically to the family home due to economic pressures or changes in relationships.
But such statistical trends give a very limited idea of day-to-day realities of the human side of marriage and family in the early 21st century: parents trying to balance the competing demands of jobs and continuing education with their parental responsibilities; children often left on their own, or in the care of others, for long periods outside the immediate family circle, while parents work long hours for increasing complex "necessities"; or two generations of the same family having to reconcile their different lifestyles in the same home over a much longer period than the previous generation experienced.
What then of the inner aspects of family, especially the practical application of this knowledge to help uplift the quality of life? According to theosophy, families are no mere chance association of individuals. Rather they are "learning laboratories" consisting of a group of individuals who have shared a long association over many past lives. When a reincarnating soul returns earthward after a period of rest in the after-death states, it is attracted to parents and family who can provide the lessons required for the coming life. The basis of this attraction may be love and similarity of traits and abilities, or it may be the need to reconcile disharmonious relationships of other lives. G. de Purucker explains the inner attractions that bring souls together in families:
The human egos awaiting incarnation are exceedingly numerous, so that there may be scores of entities which could become children of any one couple, yet there is always one whose attraction is strongest to the mother-to-be at any specific physiological moment, and it is this astral form which becomes the child. Many are the cases where the astral form . . . finds its progress into physical birth stopped because the man and the woman are either celibate or prefer no children, or for some other reason. In such cases, the astral form under karmic urge and natural law tries again. Should the first environment prove a failure, the reincarnating ego may find itself drawn to another couple because of karmic relationships in other lives.
The reincarnating ego has in a sense very little choice in the matter, if by this we mean a deliberate selecting of one's future family. Such a choice as we understand it is almost non-existent, because the reincarnating ego . . . is sunken into the relative unconsciousness of the gestation period preceding rebirth, and thus is in no condition to choose with self-conscious intent. It is karma, which throughout controls these things; and karma in the abstract is infallible in its action. — Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 625
The cosmic law of action and reaction brings people together again and again to work out the results of previous interactions. The experience of parenthood provides an environment for learning basic lessons about life — such as love, tolerance, understanding, and especially selflessness — much more rapidly for most of us than other means allow. However, like all karmic opportunities, the lessons are there for the taking only if we choose to follow the positive aspects of the challenges life presents, and alas, many turn away from these golden chances to learn more of life's higher responsibilities. We all know of the quiet heroism when illness or some other tragedy strikes a member of the family, and relatives rally round to help. Conversely, many marriages and family break-ups occur because one or both partners fail to show tolerance or understanding towards others in the family, perhaps over seemingly minor matters. Sometimes marriage partners reach a parting of the ways in their evolutionary journeying — painful though this may be to realize at the time. We certainly are not in a position to judge the karma or choices of others and, as in all aspects of life, we can only try to flow with the opportunities towards positive attitudes and unconditional love as far as we are able.
There are so many aspects to family karma, such as the relationship of an individual's destiny to family and national karma, the disciplinary aspects of family life, the convergent karma of marriage partners, the natural ending of long-time relationships over many lives in divorce or family separation when it seems necessary for the soul-learning experience of the individuals involved. My concern particularly is with the impact of modern family patterns on the developing potentials of children. Between both parents working and the increase in single-parent homes, many children are being raised in an atmosphere where the parents are too tired, or have little opportunity, to spend time with them. Recently child-rearing authorities such as Penelope Leach have made an eloquent appeal for parents, especially mothers, to stay at home during their children's years of early and crucially important development. As Ms. Leach says in her book, Children First, "If you give even five to ten years to this child-centered way of life, there is still an awful lot of time for you to be you." Recent studies in the U.S. indicate that many contemporary families are trying to heed this advice by providing as much parental care for their young children as they can.
Descriptions of contemporary social problems bring to mind sacred histories from many cultures which speak of cycles of general decline in moral standards and family life related to an increasing emphasis on externals and the pervasive influence of materialism. The Vishnu Purana, an ancient Indian religious text, long ago described the present cycle in humanity's evolutionary history known as the kali yuga or "black age." This age was said to begin 5,000 years ago with the death of Krishna and to be 432,000 years long. It should be noted that such times, while terrible in their assault on the finer human aspirations, are a testing ground for our inner mettle. More spiritual progress can be made in such an adverse moral atmosphere than at times when conditions are easier. A wise friend once described the challenge and opportunity of this present age by saying: "You don't build your muscles pushing against the air."
So much for the catalog of problems. Fortunately, most families throughout the world provide a warm and stable environment for children. Current trends point to the importance of nurturing love and respect in each individual, as well as toward our immediate family and the surrounding community — no matter how challenging this may be. Such positive attitudes involve a recognition that there are greater dimensions and responsibilities in life than the material values of popular culture. Institutional religions used to stipulate a balance between the demands of the inner and outer life and provide simple, commonly accepted rules for social behavior — rules now not universally accepted. Today many people are reaching, often blindly, towards new explanations for ancient questions; others simply ignore the fact that human beings have one foot in the subconscious realm and go on living absorbed in material values.
Spiritual teachers have always pointed to the practical value of the ancient wisdom in all aspects of human life. An appreciation of the fundamental truths of brotherhood, karma, and reincarnation that we find expressed in the world's mythology and religions is basic to the longest-lived societies, such as Australian Aboriginal culture. These truths have also helped build remarkable civilizations in the past and will do so again in the future. There is a great need for practical help for families in current emotional and economic crises, and we all owe an immense debt of gratitude to the courageous individuals of many philanthropic organizations who provide such help unrelentingly. Beyond these physical measures, the pervasive power of a loving environment built on mutual respect among parents and children, and ultimately upon knowledge of the responsibilities of the different stages and stations of life, is needed. These powerful seed-ideas need to be cast forth into the consciousness of nations. Katherine Tingley, a former leader of the Theosophical Society, concentrated much of her work on the practical value of theosophy to home life and social problems. Her words prophetically echo the challenges of changing family structures in the 21st century:
The question naturally arises: What can bring a change for the better in the home-life? What factors can be introduced to readjust it and bring it nearer to perfection? Theosophy answers that the parents should begin to study the higher laws of life and the great responsibilities of fatherhood and motherhood even before marriage. Home should be acclaimed as the center from which the higher life for the nations should spring.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2005/January 2006; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)
Silence is not merely the absence of sound. It implies a quieting, a stillness, a calmness approaching equilibrium. Every action we perform, either physically or mentally, carries with it motion, sound, and sometimes noise that we become swept up in. This cacophony surrounds and envelops our daily lives to such an extent that it may be difficult for us to hear the silent voice within, our higher self, our inner god. — Scott J. Osterhage