The Fragmentation of Family and Community


 Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold

                                                                 ~ W.B. Yeats, Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

In W.B. Yeats’ famous poem, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, he writes the falcon cannot hear the falconer. This metaphor illuminates neurobiological processes and attachment theories.  The falcon (the child) cannot hear the falconer (the parent). The two are an interdependent neurobiological system, which require each other for their very development. Yet, when the family becomes fragmented, when the parent and child are no longer attuned with each other, when they are out of sync – things fall apart: the center cannot hold.

Joan Didion wrote an essay titled Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1968, referencing Yeats’ poem. It is interesting to note that her observations of the youth in 1968 are perhaps even more insightful today. Almost 30 years have passed, and our families and children are more fragmented then ever. Didion writes:

We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great- aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.

~ Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1968

Joan Didion perceived the expansion of the social vacuum in the 1960’s and 70’s. It appears she also predicted that the vacuum would continue expanding when she writes we could no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed.

Robert D. Putnam, a professor of sociology at Harvard, sites hundreds of statistics of our disconnected society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam found in his research that over the past 25 years family dinners have declined by 33%, having friends over has declined by 45%, and attending club meetings has declined by 58%.

Putnam believes that some of the reasons for the fraying of our society are the fact that women have entered the workforce and divorce rates have skyrocketed, among others. He writes:

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values- -these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.

The US Census Bureau reported in its 2005 American Community Survey that 55.8 million households indicated that they were not married. Over 14 million of these households were headed by single women, 36.7 million were part of a category called non-family households, which usually means couples living together out of wedlock, and more than 30 million unmarried men and women reported living alone. Douglas Besharov, a sociologist with the American Enterprise Institute comments:

Overall, what I see is a situation in which people – especially children, will be much more isolated, because not only will their parents be working, but they’ll have fewer siblings, fewer cousins, fewer aunts and uncles. So over time, we’re moving towards a much more individualistic society.

A more individualistic society may not in reality be the picture we first imagine – a society of rugged individualists living the quintessence of American idealism. Certainly there will be those who strike out on their own and live an independent, free and creative life. Georgia O’Keeffe is an example of someone who lived this existence brilliantly, painting expansive landscapes in the high deserts of New Mexico. But on the other end of the spectrum we will likely see more people who are socially isolated, depressed and somewhat deviant because they haven’t developed within a healthy, social environment. When children are raised without secure attachments to their parents, and then in addition, don’t have a supportive network of extended family or community to intervene – things fall apart: they are more vulnerable to becoming emotionally detached from others, depressed, angry, and more self-centered without the ability to feel empathy for others.

An extreme case is the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.  Adam Lanza, age 20, shot and killed twenty children and six staff members before killing himself. Another such tragedy occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in1999. Two teenage students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, massacred 12 students and one teacher, in addition to wounding 24 others, before committing suicide. These were socially isolated young men who felt ostracized and rejected by high school cliques. They internalized their rage and became severely depressed and emotionally disturbed. They then tragically directed their pain and rage outward, killing innocent students in what would become the third largest school shooting in US history. Mental illness often contributes to these shootings, as was the case with gunman Cho Sueng-Hui who massacred 32 students at Virginia Tech in 2007. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to these tragedies that must be examined. Yet, we must still ask the question, how much more frequent might these outbursts of violence become if our social fabric continues to deteriorate?  In addition to changing gun laws and improving mental health services, we can’t ignore the underlying social issues.

Robert Putnum offers helpful solutions to our social crisis, such as educational programs, work-based initiatives, and funded community service programs. These solutions, however, while important initiatives, may not be sufficient. We also have to take more responsibility ourselves, and invest more into our own families and communities.

When we hear talk about the home and family, we often hear the voice of the conservative politic. We hear terms like “family values”, and if we are of a more progressive mindset, if we lean toward the liberal left wing, then we immediately discount them. But conservative, right wing “family values” are not what I’m speaking of. I’m speaking of following a natural hierarchy, a natural order of things, which includes building secure attachments to our children and families. And we now know as a result of new research findings in neuroscience and attachment how these secure attachments are developed.

How will we begin to look past liberal and conservative values, and instead focus on an order of values that transcends them both? I believe that these more integrated values can be gleaned from developmental models or studies of neuroscience and attachment. These models are not based on any political or religious beliefs, but on scientific observation, research, and the natural order of things. We can continue fighting each other over conservative versus liberal ideas, or – we can open our eyes to a larger picture showing us an impartial natural order. When we begin to understand and follow that natural order, a new, more integrated set of values and priorities will fall into place.

There has been a notable amount of focus on educating our leaders regarding how to face these social challenges. We are aware that we need a new form of leadership in our increasingly global and complex world. Leadership that is more integrated, more collaborative, that is able to see multiple perspectives. But perhaps there has not been enough focus on the average citizen, on what we can each do in our own lives to meet these same challenges. We can each influence significant changes by taking inventory of our own lives.

Most people agree that nothing is more important than providing their children with a healthy, happy, loving life. Raising children is akin to raising a society. What could be more important? It may sound simplistic, yet somehow much of our culture seems to have gone astray. If we consider what it takes to provide an optimal environment in which a child can grow, we know that certain criteria exist. This is how we can begin to formulate a hierarchy of values based upon the natural order of things.

As an exercise, what if we explore the criteria for raising a child in an optimal environment. First of all, the mother will need to be calm during her pregnancy, because as Louann Brizendine says, the stress the mother experiences will be absorbed by the baby, and possibly by the next three generations. Therefore, the mother requires a strong support network, including her partner, family, friends and health care providers, to ensure that she is able to take good care of herself and her baby.

Next, children require a safe, predictable environment with appropriate structure and limits. They require parents who are attuned, nurturing, empathic, consistent, and emotionally present; parents who are not continually preoccupied by extreme stress, work, or other matters. These conditions will foster secure attachments.

And what do the parents require in order to provide this environment? They will most likely require support from their extended family or community, so they are not overly burdened with the sole responsibility of caring for their children. Humans have always lived in groups and have helped each other with childrearing. Parents also require a balance between work inside and outside the home, which means that ideally at least one parent would have a flexible schedule, or stay home if they choose to. Parents should have the ability to take care of their family’s basic needs, such as healthcare, education and healthy food. If childcare is necessary, it needs to be good, consistent care, and as minimal as possible to ensure the formation of secure attachments.

We can begin to see, by the process of elimination, what doesn’t work. Both parents working long hours continually, and not having enough time with their children to form secure attachments doesn’t work. When parents and families don’t have a support network around them, be it extended family or community, causing them extreme stress, it doesn’t work. Children being in childcare for long hours all week doesn’t work because it allows for almost no time to bond and form secure attachments. When families are so busy trying to earn a living and juggle the responsibilities of a household that they don’t have time to gather with friends, relatives or neighbors – isolation, depression, and stress ensue, which obviously doesn’t work.

And the list goes on. When we begin to prioritize our values and design our lifestyles using developmental, neurobiological and attachment models to guide us, we begin to see more clearly. We are then not purely stuck on what is feminist or conservative or liberal or religious. We can begin to look beyond the division of those categories, and focus on what works for the good of the whole. These are universal truths that embrace the full diversity of humanity. These truths give us a map and a direction we can follow with integrity.


© 2013 Lisa Nave

About the Author

Lisa Nave

Lisa Nave is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Mill Valley, California.

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