What is the most valuable thing to us? Our education? Freedom? Money? TV, or our CD player? All these may be important, but, for most people, none of these is more valuable than their family.

Why do we care about our families so much? Why is love so important to us? It is because we are creatures of love. Our family relationships are the first, closest and probably the most enduring love relationships we will have in our lives. The bonds we have with our parents, brothers and sisters, and eventual spouse make the foundation for our life, and they shape who we become as a person. Through these relationships we learn the most about true love—love for the sake of others.

Although we love our family, we know at the same time that difficulties sometimes occur in our daily living with each other. When we are struggling with something, we may take out our frustrations on our family. At other times, although we know they love us, we can feel oppressed by our parents’ demands and expectations. Some people don’t experience support from their families, or they grow up in broken families. Teenagers often find it difficult to communicate and express themselves freely at home. Sometimes parents and teens find themselves out of touch with each other. Family life is rarely—if ever—perfect. Yet even an average family is the best place to learn important lessons about love.

"The family is nature's masterpiece." George Santayana, philosopher

The Four Realms of Heart

The family is meant to function as a "school of love." Through our family relationships we are supposed to experience and learn what love is all about. We do this by developing our hearts through four main stages that proceed in an orderly development. Each of these stages leads us from being centered upon our own needs and desires to being more and more centered upon the needs and desires of others—in other word, more and more capable of true love.

Since everyone begins life as a child, we first develop our hearts from this position in relationship to our parents. As we grow older, we develop our hearts through our relationships of love with brothers and sisters and friends as well as our parents. As we mature into adulthood, a new realm of heart opens up when we marry. Finally, when we have our own children, we experience a parental heart. These are the four types of heart or "realms" of heart through which each of us learns how to give and receive love: the children's realm, the siblings' realm, the spouse's realm, and the parents' realm of heart

Just as we cannot attend high school until we complete elementary and middle school, we will not be able to love properly in the later realms if we do not succeed in love in the earlier realms. For example, we cannot expect to become good husbands and wives unless we have first learned to be good friends with our peers and good brothers and sisters. Let us explore the significance of and the progression of love in each of the four realms of heart more deeply.

Children's realm

A child's love is a love that responds to care. A child is naturally self-centered, focused on his or her own needs and desires. He or she wants to be fed, clothed, kept warm and secure, talked to and paid attention to. However, parents would not complain that their child is selfish; they understand that the child is still in a state of immaturity. Their child’s needs and helplessness move the parents' hearts to embrace and care for the child. Their rewards are the smiles, happy sounds, embraces, and general responsiveness of a loved, well-cared for child.

As a child grows, his or her ability to respond to the parents' love ripens into taking responsibility in ways that earn the parents' approval. The child learns to tie his or her own shoes, to dress, to use the bathroom properly, to put away toys, to not hit or hurt others, property or pets. The child is rewarded for learning these small responsibilities by the parents' praise. Each small responsibility is a tiny step toward true love—love that is more concerned with the needs and desires of others rather than only one's own.

Siblings’ realm

In sibling relationships the heart’s ability to share grows. Now the child not only looks up to the parents with love, the child must look side to side to the others who are around him or her. The parents want their child to value and treat these others well. The child must share the parents, the home, food, resources, and toys with siblings. The child must learn to wait for his or her turn. This stretches the child's abilities to love. In the process of learning to love brothers and sisters, classmates and friends, children learn such virtues as honesty, fairness, cooperation, and patience.

As we enter our teenage years, our challenge is to learn to control our emotional impulses toward others—feelings of anger, jealousy, greed, impatience, desire, and the desire to merge our identities into those of others. This is necessary if we are to become people of integrity and self-respect. Keeping purity in our relationships with the opposite sex is also essential if we are to continue to develop our hearts in a healthy direction. All of this is in preparation for meeting our future spouse, so that relationship may be one of unselfish sharing and consideration of the other's needs over and above our own.

Spouse’s realm

A spouse is as "other" as someone can be. They are the opposite sex, which means they are physically, mentally, and emotionally different than we are. As was pointed out in the Preparation for Marriage chapter, even men and women's approaches to sex are different. On the foundation of the earlier realms, which have taught us to love others, we are ready to share the deepest parts of our lives and ourselves with someone who is fundamentally different than we are—truly "other."

Marriage requires intense sharing of finances, space, duties, thoughts, emotions, and our physical selves. It requires sharing new relatives and responsibilities. It is something that stretches us further and further away from self-centeredness to other-centeredness.

In a marriage, we may play diverse roles. Sometimes our spouse needs us to be a friend, a brother or sister, a parent, even a delightful child. We can be to each other whatever the occasion requires, using the relationships we have learned in the past to enrich this most significant, lifelong one.

This unique and intimate relationship between two people who are so different is the foundation for the highest and ultimate realm of heart—the parent's realm.

Parent’s realm

When a husband and wife give birth to a child, the last realm of heart is opened up. The nature of a parent’s heart is to provide the child with everything he or she needs, even at a sacrifice of the self. This involves loving another person without expecting anything in return. The parental realm is the most unselfish realm. Loving parents give and forget that they gave, and are ready to give again. If a child is sick, parents will stay up all night to take care of the child. They will give up their own food to nourish the child. They will do without whatever they need themselves so the child can have more.

Parents invest in a child, hoping that their child will be better than they were. They want the child to grow and achieve things they never could, to enjoy life and love to the fullest in ways they could not. True and genuine parents want their child to be smarter, more creative, more loving and more resourceful than themselves, and they work hard to give the child opportunities to become so. This is love that is utterly focused on the benefit and well-being of another—the highest form of true love.

"I didn't think I could ever love anyone more than I loved my children—until I met my grandchildren! Then I experienced more love than I ever thought possible." Rick, a grandfather

An extension of parental love is grandparental love. The position of grandparents is truly a royal one. In general, by this time of life, grandparents are released from the need to earn a living and can spend their time loving their families as unconditionally as possible. The parents and grandchildren honor them as the elders in the family and value their contributions. Their years of experience have given them much wisdom with which to guide and protect the family. Having labored over their lifetimes to raise and nurture a family, they can now fully give themselves over to the joys of loving and being loved.

The human family

Ideally our family relationships should teach us how to embrace people of all races and nationalities as our own brothers and sisters. Rather than seeing them as nameless strangers, we can feel that, like us, they are someone’s parent, spouse, sibling and child. The more embracing our love, the richer our life will be. As our family experiences contribute to the development of our emotional maturity, we are being led closer to our own true self: "the real me."

Questions for Reflection

1. What are the values most strongly stressed in your family?

2. Can you remember any events that made you realize the importance of these values?

3. Do you think that these values are similar to those of other families?

4. Which values do you consider most important?

6. How do you think things have changed compared to your parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods?

7. What does your family like to do together?

8. What does your family quarrel about the most?

9. What are the four realms of heart?

10. How are these four realms of heart shown in your family?

Exercise: “Love Creates Love”

Write the names of all your family members on separate pieces of paper. Fold them up and put them in a box. Then, pull one piece of paper out. This is your “beloved” for the week. For one week you should love and serve this family member, making him or her feel like the most special person in the world. Without being asked, find things to do for this person—for example, washing the dishes, walking the dog, doing the laundry—to make his or her life easier. Make little cards, write a poem, and give flowers—anything that will make this person feel loved and special.

Do at least one nice thing for your beloved each day. Resolve not to fight or argue with this person for that whole week. Notice how the attitude of your beloved changes toward you. Has your love multiplied more love? Are you now receiving more love than before?At the end of the week choose another name from your box and serve your new beloved with all your heart. After you have served all of the members of your family, start over and make this your way of life.

If your family is interested in doing this activity, then write everyone's name down on separate pieces of paper and have each family member pick one piece of paper. If it is their own name, they should fold their paper again and select another name. Do not let each other know whose name is on the paper. The person whose name is on your piece of paper is your beloved for the week. Serve each other secretly for two or three days without letting your beloved know who you are. After a few days, try to guess who your secret admirer is. Whether your family is large or small, this is a simple and fun exercise that can improve your relationships and create a wonderful atmosphere at home.

Reflection Exercise: "Grandparents"

1. How many grandparents do you have who are still alive?

2. Do you see them very often? How often?

3. Where did they grow up?

4. Do you know anything about their parents, your great-grandparents?

5. How many brothers and sisters and children did your grandparents have?

6. What do you admire most about your grandparents?

7. Do you think their life, at your age, was similar to or different from yours? In what ways?

8. What are your grandparents' favorite things to do?

9. Do you think your parents are raising you in a way similar to the way they were raised or differently? Explain.