Where We Come From, and Where We’re Headed.

Today is Father’s Day, and I’ve been looking at this photo of my father a lot:

James P.
James P.

It feels very strange to look at this face and see where parts of my own face have come from.  Of course, I never knew him when he looked like this; I think this was taken in his twenties or perhaps even younger.  I never knew him until he was much older, and when I first saw this picture, I was stunned to see what a handsome devil he had been.  Not that he wasn’t handsome later in life, but of course I never really thought of him that way, so it had never occurred to me.

This led me to look at this photo of my mother:

Barbara J., on the left.
Barbara J., on the left.

My Aunt speaks highly of my mother’s great beauty and I suppose this is probably not a flattering photo, so bear with me.  I believe this was taken in my mother’s twenties, and she looks very very like me, but her face is narrower and perhaps has less definition than mine does.  I can see very clearly where my father’s cheek and jaw have refined my mother’s face in mine.

Thinking about things like this feels very strange, taking whole people apart and putting them together in different combinations to make me, another whole person.  It is a reminder to me that despite what people may say about your past not dictating your future and you being your own individual person that our genetic origins do absolutely play a part in who we become.  I was talking to my older brother last night and he said to me at one point, “just don’t be Mom.”

This is important.  My mother was an unpleasant and I can only assume a very deeply unhappy person.  Mental illness runs in my family; it’s difficult to know exactly what my mother’s issues might have been, because the entire time I knew her she was deep in active addiction, and even during a brief stint of sobriety, she seemed to take no pride in each day clean and there was a tension about her like she was looking for a reason to go back to using.  Which, of course, she did… and this is what eventually killed her.  My father as well; he died twelve years before mom did from a very aggressive smoking related cancer.

So the surface similarities; my father’s square face and his cheekbones and my mother’s deep-set eyes and soft prettiness, are reminders that to some extent, my brain and thus my mind are also the product of these two people.  Through genetic inheritance, I am more prone to certain reactions, certain emotional and behavioral patterns, than some other people might be.  In addition, there’s some evidence now that traumas experienced by your forebears cause epigenetic changes that are also inheritable… so for instance if you had biological parents who experienced some kind of emotional trauma, this trauma could be inheritable in the form of a greater tendency toward depression and anxiety.

This is all heaped on top of the socialized influence that your familial parents (as opposed to biological parents, particularly in the case of folks who have been adopted) have on you as a child, while your brain is developing and the construction of personality is taking place.

I don’t claim to understand all of this; I’m not a psychologist and my background in biological sciences is sketchy at best.  That having been said, It’s important for me, and probably for everyone else as well, to understand that at some level, we are all the product of any of the various people who had the responsibility of parenting us.  This is not to say that we all suffer from some kind of psychological or emotional predestination, or that we aren’t our own people.  We are absolutely shaped post-birth by our experiences and the decisions that we make.  Rather, in light of the adult person that I am now, it gives me the perspective to take a hard, honest look at my parents, to try to understand who they were and why they made the choices they made; to try to suss out what was genuinely under their control and what, for all practical purposes, really was not.  And that gives me the ability to take a similar look at myself, to try to understand why I react the way that I do, and to do my best to be fair and kind.

Some will opine that from a survival standpoint, we are all selfish by nature.  We certainly seem to have the tendency to compete for and hoard resources, and in times past this certainly presented a survival advantage.  However, as social mammals, being kind and helping people allows us to forge social bonds and this also presents a survival advantage.  So I try to believe that we also have an inborn kindness in us, and when offered the choice between selfishness and pro-social behavior, I try to choose the latter.

I don’t always succeed.  I don’t think anyone always succeeds.  But I continue to try.  Because, really… isn’t that both the greatest opportunity and the greatest burden that we bear as human beings and as members of society?  To just take the cards that life has dealt us and to play the very best game that we can  with those cards in the precious short time we have been allotted?

Except in this game, I like to think that it’s a collaborative effort toward making the world a better place for as many people as possible.  Some days that just means smiling at people, and some days it means helping a friend, or indeed a stranger.  Some days it means making the best choices you can with the limited information you have.

Sometimes I fuck up.  Sometimes we all fuck up.

But the really important thing is to never stop trying.

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