I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the influence of our childhood experiences and family of origin on our lives. This influence is often very complicated even in the best of families, which is why so many therapeutic modalities involve a lot of reflection on these formative environments. For me, I see my family legacy in very positive ways, such as my ability to show and express love, my strong sense of home, and the importance of faith in my life, but also in some ways that have tripped me up, such as my tendency to avoid conflict and my self-consciousness surrounding how I interact physically in the world. Our families and early experiences don’t determine who we are going to be in the world, but they pass down a legacy that shapes us in untold ways and that we must decide what to do with in our own life.
The same can be said for cultures and communities. In the form of precedent, custom, and law, we are given a legacy from our cultural ancestors. In colonizing settler cultures like my own, we are just beginning to come to terms with a legacy where our traditional narratives of impoverished but hopeful people seeking out their fortunes in a new land and the daring pioneering spirit need to be tempered by the reality that that “new land” was not empty when they got here, and that they claimed it through underhanded dealings and cultural genocide. Admitting this is not the shamed “self-flagellation” the more reactionary elements of our society suggest it is, but simply honesty. Like every one of us, our society is far from perfect, and the legacy we’ve inherited is messy and complicated. And it’s important for us to recognize both the light and the shadow within it. The past will influence our behaviours and attitudes whether we know it or not, so it only serves to do us well to make sure we’re learning as much of the real story as we can, so we can pass on the good and break the cycles of the bad for the sake of the next generation.
When we are a part of an ancient faith tradition, we again come up against a family legacy. Early Christians were either themselves Jewish or understood themselves as having been “grafted” onto the Jewish story, and so the stories we count as our inheritance stretch back into the deep recesses of human cultural memory, beginning with a man named Abram, a Mesopotamian nomad and herdsman who was called by his god to seek a new life in the Wild West of the Eastern Mediterranean. I have to admit that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt much connection with these stories from the Hebrew Bible. They seem so foreign and often in ways that are pretty horrifying: stories of murder, slavery, invasion, genocide, and religious warfare. (My response is nothing new: Jewish scholars of the first century were also appalled by a lot of these stories!) And yet they remain our stories and it’s important to confront them, both the good and the bad.
Whether we are talking about our own family history, or that of our culture or religious tradition, we only do ourselves a disservice if we don’t keep telling our stories. It’s important to remember them: to remember that we stand not on the shoulders of giants, but on the shoulders of ordinary men and women who were doing the best they could with the resources they had, who had blind spots and struggles, strengths and weaknesses. Men and women just like us.
I’m going to try to be intentional over the next few weeks of focusing my Scripture reading practice on these ancient and challenging stories from the Hebrew Bible, my integral hermeneutic in hand, to try to reconnect to these figures and stories from the tradition’s deep past and what wisdom they might have for me.
I would encourage you to think about the legacies you have received too, in your family, community, or community of faith, to celebrate the good and to learn from the bad.