The Freedom of Family

This weekend was a large family wedding at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago. At one moment, I looked around at my cousins and childhood friends who had flown in from New York and realized that we have gotten older. It’s a funny thing: hairlines have receded, turned grey, and mid-sections have grown exponentially; yet, personalities have remained quite similar. The comedians still tell jokes, the introverted still do the listening, and the dancers continue to cut it up on the floor, even though it now looks far less graceful (something evidently unknown to some of these Travoltas). However, my interest isn’t to reflect on how the years change us, so much as I would like to consider the supreme value of family, particularly as it emerges from the shared experience of one’s home.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 196) was one of the great Christian writers of the early twentieth century, excelling at journalism, fiction, popular theology, biography, and detective stories. He had no patience for those who disparaged the experience of family. In the passage below, he contends that home life—far from being confining and bland—is a place of unique freedom and opportunity.

But of all the modern notions generated by mere wealth the worst is this: the notion that domesticity is dull and tame. Inside the home (they say) is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. This is indeed a rich man’s opinion. The rich man knows that his own house moves on vast and soundless wheels of wealth: is run by regiments of servants, by a swift and silent ritual. On the other hand, every sort of vagabondage of romance is open to him in the streets outside . . . And because he, the luxurious man, dictates the tone of nearly all “advanced” and “progressive” thought, we have almost forgotten what a home really means to the overwhelming millions of mankind.

For the truth is, that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty. Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on the earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter. He can eat his meals on the floor in his own house if he likes. I often do it myself; it gives a curious, childish, poetic, picnic feeling. There would be considerable trouble if I tried to do it in an A.B.C. tea-shop. A man can wear a dressing-gown and slippers in his house; while I am sure that this would not be permitted at the Savoy, though I never actually tested the point . . . For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure. It is the one wild place in the world of rules and set tasks. The home is the one place where he can put the carpet on the ceiling or the slates on the floor if he wants to . . . Hotels may be defined as places where you are forced to dress; and theaters may be defined as places where you are forbidden to smoke. A man can only picnic at home.1

I can’t resist sharing the following photo. Yes, it was as fun as it appears.

 

Footnotes:

1 G. K. Chesterton, “The Wildness of Domesticity,” in What’s Wrong with the World (New York: Sneed & Ward, 1956), 43-44.

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