Today is my mother’s birthday. Maybe that’s why I woke up feeling a little blue; she died nearly eleven years ago. She was a remarkable woman, but I suppose most of us think that about our moms. Though I miss her physical presence in my life, to say that she is a part of who I am is not a platitude. The interactions, the relationships we have with others change us. This is particularly true of those with whom we have the strongest attachments.
Robert Mesle describes the experience of being changed by a relationship,
She and I have shaped each other. Decisions that she makes about who she will be and how she will act call forth responses in me. I experience her, and then [decide]. . . how I will act. Her love and anger and joy and frustration express themselves in ways that I experience, experiences that are literally part of who I am. (Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, 56.)
Mesle wasn’t writing about an important relationship with someone who had died, however the same is true of those who we have lost through death. I still carry within me the interactions I had with my mother. My unconditional love of my children, my insatiable curiosity, my commitment to God, and my passion for young children and their families all have their roots in the mother-son relationship. My fondness for pistachio ice cream, my silly songs, and, yes, even my spaciness also can be traced back to the one who died eleven years ago. We carry those who came before us within us.
Though I never met my paternal grandfather, an alcoholic who abandoned my mother, I carry him within me, too. Though I cannot identify specific personality characteristics within him that are within me, I know that his relationship with my mother changed her. His personality as well as his alcoholism are a part of me, transferred to me through my mother. Who she was included her Scottish immigrant father; who I am includes her.
We are interconnected; we are one humanity. We are not only bound together through those we personally meet but through those generations that came before us.
American culture, especially Anglo-American culture, downplays our connectedness with our forebears. (Perhaps this is the result of our relatively short time on this continent.) We think we are disconnected from our ancestors. We are not. To pretend otherwise is to lose sight of who we are and who we can become.
We think of time as a linear experience that begins with the present. We surgically remove the past from our personal and communal psyches. That is unless that past reflects well on us. Americans like to take pride in our entrance into World War II as liberators. We conveniently forget that our isolationism contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. I like to take pride in my grandmother standing up for an unwed mother in her church while ignoring her bigotry toward a neighbor.
Our sense that time begins with us, prevents us from reconciling with others. It prevents us from healing historic rifts with other peoples and wrongs committed by us. We are responsible for the actions of our forebears.
As humans, we all sin and we all do good. My people are responsible for much good. We are also responsible for heinous acts. We are responsible for the Crusades, the slave trade, theft and colonization of other peoples’ lands, and an atomic bomb dropped on innocent people in Japan. Though I am not personally responsible for any of these actions, they are a part of me.
We must change our sense of time. We must accept the sin we share with our forebears or we will never be able to reconcile with our kindred human beings. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, reconciliation with all of God’s people should be a part of our DNA. Reconciliation is more than striving to be loving people in the present, though that is critical. Reconciliation requires that we love all peoples enough that we’re willing to confess the sins of our past.