The Tragic Necessity of Human Life: Willa Cather on Relationships and How Our Formative Family Dynamics Imprint Us
By Maria Popova
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote in his short, potent meditation on how to love. Developmentally, we humans learn — or mislearn — how to love through our formative attachment patterns, modeled by and cultivated within the family — patterns that imprint our emotional identity and shape the defaults of how we connect, be they wounding or harmonizing. Family dynamics thus become inseparable from our sense of identity, and although we might eventually rewire our attachment patterns through new relationships and ample self-work, we can never fully unmoor ourselves from those formative affections, for they are woven into the mysterious thread that makes us and our childhood selves one person.
That peculiar, inescapable dance between the family and the self is what beloved novelist Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) explores in one of the pieces found in her altogether magnificent 1936 nonfiction collection Not Under Forty (public library).
In a beautiful appreciation of Katherine Mansfield’s genius for conveying the complexities of human relationships, Cather writes:
I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.
One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.
And yet even amid this glibness, Cather does what she does best — out of the seemingly damning, she wrests the redemptive:
In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works…
These secret accords and antipathies which lie hidden under our everyday behavior … more than any outward events make our lives happy or unhappy.
That Not Under Forty has gone out of print is nothing short of a tragedy, but used copies are still findable and well worth a trip to the public library. Complement it with Cather on how to persevere through difficult times and the life-changing advice that made her a writer, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how storytelling rewires our emotional patterning, immunologist Esther Sternberg on how relationships affect our immune system, Charles Darwin on family, work, and happiness, and Adrienne Rich on honorable human relationships.
Published February 25, 2016