By Lisa A. Listwa
When we start a conversation about heritage, it is easy and natural to jump to topics like researching ancestry registries, or passing along holiday traditions, family heirlooms, and recipes. It is logical to talk about cultural history and ethnic background.
But what is heritage, really? And how are we connected to it?
From the moment we enter the world screaming, we are subtly conditioned to look backward, to examine where we come from and what – or whom – in the past has shaped us. We are taught from day one that our identity is inextricably tied to the past. We learn to recognize that before who we are right now, there is a history that tells us who we were.
She has her grandfather’s eyes.
He has his mother’s smile.
That bit of personality comes from favorite aunt or uncle so-and-so.
So often we look at old photographs to recall precious memories or to see the faces of relatives who are no longer with us or even those we just saw last weekend. Photographs offer us a window to the past where we can connect with these people who look and act and talk like us, where we can spend time experiencing and reliving the traditions and events of our shared history.
I often wonder whether the relatives who smile at me from the photos on my wall thought about how their lives and their choices would affect future generations. I find it nearly impossible to think they did not, for I know how often I find myself stopped in the middle of my life asking, “Is this what my daughter will remember? Is this what she will pass on to her children?”
We talk about our ethnic or cultural heritage – the shared history of a tribe that goes well beyond our biological family. These are our shared stories and songs, feasts and festivals, rites and rituals that tell the narrative of a people.
But our personal heritage includes all of the people who enter our lives; those who move on, as well as those who remain.
And the cycle repeats itself endlessly; we inherit what is passed to us so that we, in our turn, might pass that on to those who come after – a sure continuation of human existence.
Every moment of our present will ultimately be part of someone else’s history. The memories that I hold in my heart of holidays celebrated with grandparents and other relatives, summer afternoons spent swimming and playing with cousins, parades and fireworks displays enjoyed with family and friends all color the ways I choose to live and celebrate today.
At the same time, all that we used to do may not be practical or appropriate anymore. People die, homes are sold, and our gatherings change in form and structure. We begin to adapt our heritage. We hold on to some old traditions and create new ones, incorporating what makes sense and discarding what does not.
Not all parts of our heritage are bathed in sunlight. Some of what we carry with us into our future is dark and heavy. Memories of pain and loss haunt us. But even these shadows of our past help to shape our present. Maybe those shadows show us the kind of person we do not want to be, the kind of choices we do not want to make, mistakes we want to avoid in the future.
The combination of shadow and light provides balance and perspective and helps to propel us forward as individuals, families, and societies. Perhaps that is the greatest heirloom of all – the ability we humans possess to use our knowledge and experience to learn and to grow, to change and to become.
Who we are right now, at any moment of our lives, begets who we are yet to become. It all comes down to connection. Each one of us is innately and inextricably connected to both our past and our future right now, in our present. We were, we are, and we are yet to be…
The challenge for all of us is to decide how we will reconcile the three. Should we live with regret? Wish we had never done something?
But if we could change it, would we? And would that change the person we are now, how we think or feel about those events or people in our past? If we were a different version of our selves at this moment, would it affect how we carry out the rest of our life, or what we will ultimately pass on to future generations?
Life is a journey. Whether it be our individual journey, the journey of our ancestors leading to our personal today, or our today leading to our children’s tomorrow, we are all on this path through life together. Our journeys will overlap and weave in and out of one another’s, but all move certainly forward, continuing toward the next – and hopefully better – version of ourselves that lies in store.
We humans are complicated beings. We affect and are affected by one another, for better or for worse. We are multi-layered and multi-faceted. In his poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman said “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
And that is so true.
We are living, breathing contradictions. We are indeed large. And we do indeed contain multitudes; we carry within us parts of all those individuals who have come before us, all the heirlooms and mementos both tangible and abstract, all the habits, physical features, and personality traits we possess…
We are large. We contain multitudes.
We have a great responsibility to pass all of that on to future generations. It isn’t up to us to decide, though, what they will keep or how they will use what we send forward. Our responsibility is only to give; theirs is to receive. Like the game of telephone, every precious memory and experience we pass on changes ever so slightly as it is received and interpreted by the next receiver, and yet every detail remains.
We are large.
We were, we are, and we are yet to be…
Lisa A. Listwa is a self-employed writer with experience in education, publishing, and the martial arts. Believing there was more to life than punching someone else’s time clock and inspired by the words of Henry David Thoreau, she traded her life as a high school educator for a life as a freelance writer and never looked back. She is mother to one glorious handful of a daughter, wife to the nicest guy on the planet, and reluctant but devoted owner of three rotten cats. She spends her time stacking the pile of books to read ever higher, wondering if she should have been a chef, and trying to figure out where she last left her damn cell phone. In addition to an eclectic mix of works in progress, Lisa also writes about life, its banalities, and the beauty of living deliberately on her blog, The Meaning of Me.