Friday, December 25, 2015

Thanks, Gram(s).

I recently read that the reverberations of life experiences can be passed from generation to generation.  That the effects of traumas suffered by recent ancestors can rear up in your own life, can explain subtle lingering tendencies, anxieties, fears and problems.  The abuse or sufferings of the great-grandparent can apparently manifest in the 21st century descendant, but how?  In what ways.

It seems so fascinating, shocking, yet obvious.  It's a scientific confirmation of something we've always sensed - that nothing is ever really forgotten, as much as we wish it to be, and that each experience lives on in a new form.

I hate that.  A deeply self-conscious person for most of my life, the only comfort that I could ever accept was that no one would remember the interactions or experiences I regretted.  And maybe they won't.  But those childhood pangs and young adult anguish could live in the strands of my being for the rest of my life, and in the psyche of a child.

But that's a terrible example.  Consider the shadow that may live on behind the eyes of the grandchildren of holocaust survivors, of any victim of a cruel and unimaginable violation or torture. Imagine the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves.  How are their lives affected by the pain and struggles of the people who came before them? How are their experiences unintuitively informed by the experiences of their greats and their great-greats?

I scanned back through the last few sets of my ancestors and could think of nothing so extreme.  Most of my great-great grandparents dealt with the stress and upheaval of a transatlantic voyage, of leaving their homeland and their native language for a land of commercial brutality.  But everything worked out in the end and they all experienced some prosperity and safety within their lifetimes as a reward for their courage.  Bad marriages, dead children, economic strife, it could all be in there in the cords of my DNA, but how does that compare to what they carried themselves, from their own ancestors?  Starvation and true poverty, uncountable generations spent in subsistence in the mud of some crevice of Europe, now known by another name.  Poor Irish, Italian peasants, German laborers.  Uneducated people linked by twining strands of bad experiences bound together through generation after generation like held hands.

If the experiences do carry through, how long do they last?  Long enough for you to create one for your own descendants?  Do the stains of the far flung past fade or remain, diluted but carrying potential, waiting for their activation?

Conversely, the positives do carry forward as well.  Perhaps these are easier to see.  The tender upbringing, the positive home environment, the lack of desperation can all make for more stable grandchildren.  In my family, going back to a time when it wasn't so easily attained, there was an inclination to formal or autodidactic education.  When my great-aunt led me on a tour of the farmhouse my grandma was born in, she took us down the stairs to a dank basement and clapped her hand on an old chalkboard.  She said my great-grandfather brought this home when the local schoolhouse upgraded to a bigger one.  On it, he taught his children, boys and girls, basic arithmetic to reinforce what they learned in the classic one room schoolhouse of Percival.  It was long enough ago that it was uncommon to educate daughters, because there was no point - she didn't need to know the rivers of the world to raise a baby adequately.

I know those things matter.  And I know they carry forward from generation to generation.  I'll spare the tender examples, but my grandmother spent her entire life in the casual pursuit of knowledge and so has my dad.  And their examples and teachings have led me to do the same.  I think much of this is an innate desire, but is it really?  If an example isn't made, do you know the option is there?  I've known many naturally sharp people who lack completely the intellectual spirit of the pursuit of knowledge for pleasure.  They have the raw material, but it's never quite realized into something coherent or refined enough to do much with.  Is that a shitty qualification of the various types of intelligence?  Probably.  Call the police.

Although the beginning of this thought seems fucking depressing - that we are possibly saddled with the residue of our ancestors' experiences, isn't that somewhat of a comfort?  It either explains heretofore inexplicable tendencies, or it lends some gravity to the things prior generations experienced.  Because isn't it kind of disgusting that generations of your predecessors had to spend their lives fumbling in the dirt so that you could drop pizza on yourself on the couch while proclaiming that today is the worst day in history because the Seahawks lost?

You know?  (I tried to use an example outside of myself for fun. Did it work? My example would be "because Matthew died on Downton Abbey" or something. SPOILER, but as I always say: if you found out after me, you're on your own)

Isn't it terrifying that we don't really know what even happened 50 years ago, not to mention 350 years ago?  The hardscrabble lives and lack of choices?  If we can't remember cognizantly, then we can remember subconsciously, celluarly.  Because I think it's diminishing and unfair to forget that lifestyles that we would consider worse than death were entirely normal once, and that you are made of the victory against nature that was survival, once.

So anyway, everyone's fucked because everyone suffered a while back.  Kind of takes the pressure off, though, does it?

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