Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Things We Carry

Our families, in part, make us who we are. We have good characteristics, positive traits that our moms, dads, grandparents, and aunts left pressed upon us. And we have some not-so-great traits that we may wish had been left behind.

From my grandma, "Honey," and my mom, I received my thin body type. In my grandma's wedding picture, she stands in a 1940's era suit, tall and willowy. My daughter complains, sometimes, that she received the "not-so-great" parts of her parents. From me, I'm afraid, she received awkwardness - my complete lack of athletic ability. She and I cannot run a mile to save our lives.

From our families, we also inherit good and bad stories. When we would write narratives in my college writing class, I urge students to think through both the positive and the negative stories of their life. Both types of stories, I tell them, are your inheritance. All of it - the good and the bad.

Both types of stories have shaped who you are today. They have influenced your story. They have contributed to your beliefs, your hopes and your prejudices about family, love, life, and God. They have molded what you'd like your life to be like - and influenced your opinions on how you don't want to be or think or act.

Kathleen Norris, in her lovely, thoughtful book on faith, Amazing Grace, expresses this so well,

It's far less pleasant--it can feel like a curse--to include in my welcome the difficult ancestors: the insane, the suicides, the alcoholics, the religiously self-righteous who literally scared the bejesus out of me when I was little, or who murdered my spirit with words of condemnation. Abel is welcome in my family tree, but I'd just as soon leave Cain out. yet, God has given me both reminding me that the line in Psalm 16 "welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me," can be a tough one to live with. If, as Paul says, "all things work together for Good for those who love God" (Rom. 8:28), then in giving me a mixed inheritance, both blessing an curse, God expects me to make something of it. Redeem the bad, and turn it into something good.

Norris suggests that we are to redeem the bad. We are to tell all of our stories, the good, the bad, the hilarious and the heartbreaking.

In one of my favorite movies based on Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club, four Chinese mothers avoid telling their American-born Chinese daughters their stories. They want their offspring to have only the very best, good, positive, hopeful lives. They think the dark moments of their past should remain forever hidden in their past.

What they discover is that in telling those stories, they end up setting their daughters free. They teach them from those experiences. They become real and authentic in their relationships. The daughters, even when having to hear hard truths, are better for it.

Tan writes: "So this is what I will do. I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened, the pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back..."

This is our inheritance. It is real and fierce. It is not just the pretty, shiny moment, but the gritty stuff too.

Sifting our treasure, our inheritance, through our fingers, we learn.

We carry both the good and the bad. They made us who we are today.
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