Our Inheritance, Our Legacy

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f*cked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin

Our first experiences in life shape so much about the selves we become and are always becoming.  From our first moments in the womb, we’re constantly absorbing information about our world and making sense of who we are from our parents. In their shadow and care, we form our identity and ideas about the world. We form beliefs about who we are, what it means to be human, how to belong, what it takes to be loved and to love, what emotions mean, how God works, and what we feel about money–all greatly influenced by our upbringing, whether we like it or not.

As Philip Larkin writes in his poem, This Be The Verse:

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, often in ways that we admit only reluctantly. Yet, when we look back over who imprinted us and how we are now, it’s a hard realization to deny. Sometimes, we have to break our idealized image of our perfect parental units, or perhaps one of our parental figures. But our parents are humans, too, who were raised by their own parents who were likely less than perfect. And on it goes. This isn’t spirituality. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, side with the stoics, make a pilgrimage to Burning Man, or abide by any other scripture in the global religio-philosophical cannon. This is part of being human.  

As we emerge into our lives as vulnerable little humans, we are like impressionable clay–or a freshly set up development environment–ready for new code in the human way to be. Our parental units inform so much of what imprints us about our world, and it’s as if we compile and interpret all of that new information flooding our experience which we then log as programs to run when we need it.

The stories that live in our bones, wired by our neural nets, carry our uniquely tailored maps of the world. These include the positive as well as the negative feelings and meanings about events that happened as they are logged in our memories. Some have more charge than others and are logged as such out of our body’s penchant for self-preservation. Until we do some inner “house cleaning” later in life to look at what we’ve packed along with us, we’ll stick in the same cycles before we can re-sort it all and decide what we would (really, really, really) like.

Earlier this week I was sitting in my therapist’s office responding to a series of questions he asked about memories I had growing up.: “Who took care of you when you were sick? What would they do for you? Who would you run to if you were hurt? Who would play with you, and how? When did you feel cared for? Did your parents ever get angry? What was that like…?”

As I responded to each, and then stood back and took a meta stance on how I had responded, I could feel how certain moments, and the view of them as a whole, had shaped my current experience. It was unnerving. At the end of the session, my therapist asked curiously, “Can you see how these experiences impacted you?” Once again, I was amazed by how much our formidable years are, well, formidable.

sometimes
i smell my parents
on my words
and i weep.

– Nayyirah Waheed

While I was there to explore moving forward with my partner in new choreography, I couldn’t get to the new territory without really seeing how the old stuff was playing out in my current rendition of things-and how it was all connected to the meanings I made during childhood. So often in our daily lives, the past is present so much so that it’s like the movie Groundhog Day, over and over again, as we live out the same patterns programmed into us from the imprints at the various stages of our human development.

Both denying that fact and being attached to it keep us from meeting life fully. We live in the shadows of our parents, rebel against them in a polarizing attempt to be not like them, or we can hold the wounds from our past close to our chest, on our sleeve, and knit to our identity in a way that they leave us small and living for and in the past. Getting a clear view of what our parental imprints are, and how it’s showing up in our lives is a key exercise to being able to change and tread new, uncharted territory in our map of experience.

In his book The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, Jungian analyst James Hollis writes that after childhood at age twelve, we enter our first adulthood until age forty. If we choose to progress, we enter a second adulthood around age forty until old age. Though, most people never make the develop from childhood to adulthood and are in a sense overgrown children. For those that fail to pass from the first adulthood into the second, those people live unlived lives, namely because: “The first adulthood is … full of blunders, shyness, inhibitions, mistaken assumptions, and always, the silent rolling of the tapes of childhood.”

If you’re reading this, I’d wager that you’re not someone vying for an unlived life. For most of us ambitious types, that’s what we fear most, right? We wanna suck the marrow out of our one, wild and precious life. So, how do we become ourselves, minus the silent rolling tapes of childhood? Moreover, how do we prevent these tapes from childhood from playing a big role in our businesses and companies like Derek Flanzraich, CEO of Greatist, and Jerry talk about in this podcast conversation?

While our histories repeat themselves, these historical imperatives aren’t necessarily imperative. Cue Carl Jung: “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” And, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Or, as Jerry points out, “The self-inquiry process is like “Who the f*ck am I?” and “What am I working with here? All of our work is to take what happened to us and shape our own self.”

Once you become aware of these patterns, you can notice where they show up, how they show up, and what makes them come alive. And, you can give yourself the space choose something different. What are these things I’m doing and why? Where do they come from? When did they first show up? What do they remind me of? How are my childhood imprints and beliefs showing up right now? And, the most important question: What would I like?

For Hollis, the questions that push us into real adulthood in the second half of life shift from “How do I survive in this world I landed in?” to “Who, apart from the roles you play, are you? What does the soul ask of you? Do you have the wherewithal to shift course, to deconstruct your painfully achieved identity, risking failure, marginalization, and loss of collective approval?”

To get there, which Hollis asserts is “no small task,” we need to tend to the unsorted baggage of our lives.

In doing so, we can heal the wounds in our own hearts, therefore a burden from the next generation. Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You, writes, “Did you know that what we reject in our parents lives inside us? We can carry their emotions, behaviors, addictions, and traumas as though they were our own. It’s our unconscious way of loving them. The more we distance from them, the more we are likely to suffer. Once we find our peace with our parents, it not only has a positive effect on us but also on our children who often carry our heaviness for us.”