“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”– Leo Tolstoy, “Anna KArenina”
Reframing Family Happiness as Defined in Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”
You may remember the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: it is a powerful summary of the epic novel that gives a perfect intro to the following +800 pages, and an even more touching statement for anyone with a thought of potentially living in an unhappy family.
If you think you come from one, you know who you are.
But I am here to change your perspective, only because I’ve often believed that my family is unhappy, at least when judging its (my) happiness by some external social standards.
More precisely, I had an indoctrinated picture of what a happy family needs to look like, which has affected and shaped the already substantial level of happiness I felt because I thought that’s not what happiness should feel and look like.
My main point here is to watch out when someone else that doesn’t have a clue about you or your personal circumstances tells you how happy you are.
But I didn’t come to this conclusion by reading “Anna Karenina”.
The novel was mandatory reading in high school when I was just 15 years old. I still can’t believe how someone thinks that 15-year old teenagers can grasp the full complexity of the novel, especially the situation the main protagonist finds herself in and the social tint of the era.
Nevertheless, it’s a timeless masterpiece that is not easy to forget but whose true worth comes to awareness a few decades later in life.
The lesson about happy families I’ve recently come up with was from rewatching “Scrubs”.
In search of a decent comedy series, I often do series rebounds, discovering new meaning in the same episodes.
The one a recently watched (probably for the third time) is an episode from season three, in which John Dorian, J.D. (played by Zach Braff) and Dr. Perry Cox (played by John McGinley), engage in one of their famous love-hate deprecating dialogues aimed at J.D.
If you watched the series, you might remember that Dr. Cox was constantly invested in telling how little he cares about anything J.D. does, so much as to think that he was doing it with such a great passion only to cover up for the truth that he actually “hearts” J.D.
On the other hand, J.D. was looking for Dr. Cox’s (some sort of) fatherly approval and was seldom getting it. Seldom, because in the rare glimpses of Perry Cox’s warmth under the guise of a tough guy, he supported J.D.
One such occasion happens in this particular episode. Dan Dorian, J.D’s brother, gives a lecture to Dr.Cox about protecting his “little brother” after which the doctor changes the usual tune and decides not to give J.D. the usual trouble on that particular occasion.
The lesson for John Dorian, for me, and for everyone else reading this is Cox’s definition of happiness.
When J.D. exchanges thoughts about family happiness with Dr.Cox, he complains about his family “being unhappy” as he struggles with forgiving his big brother for some reckless behavior.
I don’t remember the exact scene rollout, but the point Dr. Cox makes is about J.D.’s position of a victim.
Cox tells J.D. that his own family is not any different than John and Dan’s and that the main difference is that they forgive each other.
And that was my unexpected precious pick from this episode, apart from the laughter I immensely enjoyed.
Contrary to Tolstoy’s black and white definition of happiness, there are no perfectly happy families, because, invariably, family members will hurt each other in some way, intently or casually, sooner or later.
But those that tend to forgive each other have much better chances of building happiness.
Holding a grudge is a recipe for unhappiness because it can keep you stuck in place.
This doesn’t mean that you need to forgive everything to everyone, even if they are family, but that if you ditch the role of a victim and focus on vulnerability, love, and forgiveness more often, you have better prospects for whitelisting your family under the “happy” column.