A Usable Past

As in many families, mine fought to determine the lineage of each of its three children.  It was decided that I was my father’s child.  I was said to look and act like him and to have cornered a large share of his genes.  My brother was my mother’s child and my sister was a shared treasure.  My parents may have initiated the selection process but, almost from the start, others joined in—aunts and uncles, friends and business associates.  Everyone had an opinion.  “No doubt,” they said, “Barry is just like his father.”

My place on the paternal side of the ledger was established early, often, and powerfully.  If I or anyone objected to the genetic coding, for instance, we were scolded and told to get in line: “You’re blind,” they intoned.  So it was with my siblings, even though it was clear that we all shared characteristics and influences from both parents and their extended families.

I may have been fifty years old when I looked in the mirror and decided that I didn’t look anything like my father.  I didn’t act that much like him, either.  In fact, my mother seemed more familiar to me, but my brother wasn’t ready to concede his place, even though he had inherited many of my father’s traits and would have loved to claim some of the currency of being the first son.

Researchers tell us that we have amnesia for life before the age of three and a half and that the memories we have from that time on are clearer and stronger when our parents help us to organize them.  They take the fragments of our own memories and weave them into a coherent story—like the story of how I would carry on my father’s intellectual aspirations.  Even what we experience as our private memories are really collective creations.

The stories we create are not random but purposeful, and in this sense, and odd as it may sound, remembering is also purposeful.  That purpose varies from time to time and, of course, person to person.  But each person and each time includes purpose.  Some people paint sentimental pictures to comfort themselves in the present.  My father and his sister, for example, were abandoned in early childhood by their tuberculosis-plagued mother, and painted a highly romanticized portrait of her almost saintly kindness and generosity.  By painting her that way they virtually created the mother they needed when they were alone and lonely—and in addition, painted a less shameful picture to the world.

Others tell stories of harsh and painful childhoods to illustrate the difficulties they have had to overcome—or to justify the limitations they feel in the present.  By inheriting my father’s mantle, I could virtually own for myself the horror of his upbringing, and this story supported me as I struggled, feeling like a poor boy from a poor school during my first years at Harvard.

It’s not that we are inventing these stories out of whole cloth, and it’s not like we are trying to deceive anyone.  We believe the stories we tell in creating what Van Wyck Brooks once called “a usable past.”  And we learn to overlook where the stories diverge a little from memory or credibility and to weave the discrepancies back into the story.  For instance, I never thought that my childhood difficulties rivaled those of my father but I did come to believe that his problems showed up in his parenting, which in turn means that, in some way, I shared his childhood.

Even though we feel the stories we tell about ourselves are highly personal, even individual, other people’s stories are woven into them.  And large cultural themes make their way in, as well.  There is hardly an American, for instance, who has not been influenced positively or negatively by the Horatio Alger narrative about going from “rags to riches.”  We all judge ourselves according to this tale, even if we have just stayed in place.  Hence the pleasure we take in telling the story about rich people: They are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.  We, on the other hand, have had to earn our keep.

In traditional societies, there are ritualized ways of telling our family histories in order to create a sense of continuity and connection.  You see that in the Bible, where Adam begat Seth and so on down the line.  And there are often specific individuals in each community assigned to do so.  In modern society, we have neither the rituals nor the designated story tellers and must do so ourselves.

In fact, it’s possible that our lack of a clear path backwards as a way to explain the present, combined with a vague and general sense of social isolation, are the reason for the current mania over genealogy. Websites like Ancestry.com and TV shows like Finding Our Roots have emerged to remedy the holes created by lost rituals.  According to an ABC News report, “genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.”  Ancestry.com, alone, has over two million users and recently sold for $1.6 billion.  It seems we are all in search of a past to enhance our lives.

We may be looking backwards so much because we, as individuals and as a society as a whole, have lost faith in the future.  I don’t think that ours is a forward-looking culture.   Better to find a sentimental or proud connection to the past.  The search for our roots can build pride and confidence, but I don’t think that people are taking the next step: truly translating their heritage into a usable past, one that points energetically and optimistically in the direction they need to go.

As for myself, I believe that distance and old age have finally freed me from my family competition.  I can put aside that story about who I am and where I come from.  I don’t experience the “forces” of history, familial and societal, as strongly as I once did.  I am a person with many influences, yet distinct in myself.  Sometimes, standing alone feels less sturdy but it also feels more free.

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