November 5: Grateful for the Past

A favorite question of mine–generally posed in a college classroom–is “how many of your ancestors had children?  Most classes have someone who gets it in about five seconds, but over the years I’ve had pauses for up to perhaps thirty seconds.

The answer, of course, is “all of them.”  After a few moments for reflection, I’ve occasionally added a suggestion that if the students want to be ancestors, they’re going to need to have children also.  It’s a seed planted.  A “suggestion” is something that is supposed to gestate.

Today is a good day to think about what we’ve received from the past.  Genetically, we’re an intricate combination of past influences.  Emotionally and psychologically, we’re woven from experiences and our responses to them.  Those responses, again, were conditioned on intricate combinations of factors, some of which can be identified.  Most are likely invisible.

We’ve inherited more than we think.  A high school classmate with pronounced mannerisms told her teacher and fellow psychology students (I was one of them), “I’m nothing like my mother.”  A few weeks later I accompanied my dad on a plumbing repair job at her mother’s house.  I’ve forgotten what we fixed there.  I’ve never forgotten the mom and her mannerisms.  I thought the daughter was a rather distinct echo of the mother.  Even an indistinct echoes has a clear sources.  We are all echoes.

We are more than the sum of our experiences, thankfully.  That “more” can disguise the underlying materials that have gone into our construction.  A room’s facade conveys desirable qualities while covering the joists and concrete and cables and pipes and vents that give it basic shape and make it function.  But paint and trim are not the substance of a room.   If the finished appearance of our lives is appealing–whether more or less so–its real quality depends largely on what lies hidden underneath.  It’s that hidden part that needs appreciation.

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