There’s no final version of a life story

What we call “I” is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki reminds us that what we know as “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, whether or not we want it to be. We’d like to believe that changes to our identity are under our control, the result of growth and intent. But what happens when we find out that we’re not who we thought we were, when the family story that was built around us and on whose scaffold we grew is wrong?

NPR journalist Alex Wagner, who just wrote a memoir about her family, notes that the beginnings and endings of stories are arbitrary — there’s always something that happened before and more that comes after. And only when we ask questions and go looking will we find the fuller story.

Here was my story: My maternal grandmother ran off with a neighbor shortly before my mother’s second birthday, leaving her husband and six children behind. She had four more children after she left and her first set of children only saw her a few more times. She essentially cut them off.

This was a story I grew up with, a story that I feel I knew from earliest memory. My mother didn’t try to hide it from us or shelter us from it; we knew very clearly from a young age that her mother had left her behind, to be raised by her father and later, a stepmother.

For years, I’ve been interested in genealogy, and have delved deeply into my family history. But this story wasn’t one that I spent much time questioning or looking into. It was “case closed, end of story.” Then along came DNA testing, and with it, some second cousins who were unknown to me.

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So here’s the revised story: All those new second cousins? They are people whose grandparents were siblings of the man my grandmother ran off with. Even when I saw this reality on the screen in front of me, it took several minutes for the realization to sink in that my grandfather was that other man, and that my mother was left behind by both of her parents, not just one of them. The beginning of my mom’s formative story wasn’t when her mother left, it was much earlier.

I keep thinking this shouldn’t affect me much – most of the people involved are dead, I wasn’t that close to the man I thought was my grandfather, and I’m glad that my mother has been spared this truth. Yet I can’t stop thinking about it; it confuses and troubles me in ways I didn’t expect. I want to know more about this person whose DNA I share. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing this, you know you are their continuation. You may have thought that your ancestors no longer existed, but even scientists say your ancestors are present in you. The same is true for your descendants. You will be present in every cell of their bodies.

If I am a continuation of my grandparents, who am I now? Who were they? We grow up with an identity that is molded by the stories and messages, both subtle and overt, that we receive from our parents and other adults. Sometimes self-perception gets skewed because of identities that are projected onto us (the “smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “troublemaker”). But we have a chance at different points in life to reject those projections and forge a fresh identity based on our own values, beliefs and goals.

And yet, it’s hard to rid ourselves of those early identities. Did my mother’s abandonment stories leave an indelible impression on me? Did that change how I interact with my world? What emotions should I be feeling about those old wrongs? On Psychology Today, Mel Schwartz writes that one’s sense of self should be more like a willow tree than an oak, more flexible than sturdy, ready to accept and bend with the storms of life. So I turn again to Thich Nhat Hanh:

Some of us have wonderful parents; others have parents who suffered a lot and made their partners and their children suffer. Just about everyone has some blood ancestors whom we admire, and others who had many negative traits and of whom we are not proud. They are all our ancestors…We may be angry with them, but they are still our ancestors…We cannot get rid of them…Unconditional acceptance is the first step in opening the door to the miracle of forgiveness.

I used to think that it was my mother’s prerogative to experience these emotions – anger, grief, forgiveness. I’m just beginning to consider my grandparents as people I might want to forgive, people who suffered, and maybe tried to do their best. I will never know what motivated them to do what they did; all I can do now is try to cultivate generosity and compassion toward them, bending like a willow, swinging like a door.

 

 

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Lessons from “30 Rock”

Toward the end of the “30 Rock” finale, Liz Lemon is explaining to Tracy Jordan how difficult he has been to work with, and how hard he made her job, but she says “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” she loves him anyway.

The “30 Rock” characters have change thrust upon them as the show ends; they experience love and loss, see dreams fulfilled and have wishes granted. Above all, the last episode is about how sometimes our hearts and our brains are at cross purposes. We think we want one thing, but when we get it, we find out it doesn’t make us happy. Or we discover that the thing that makes us happiest has been right in front of us all along.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has written, “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present…We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”

The question is whether instead of always using the present to project a rosier future, can you stay focused on the here and now, the reality of what is?

In “30 Rock”, Liz gets the children she wanted and becomes a stay-at-home mom, only to realize that she misses work terribly. Her husband gets a new job, and is miserable because he desperately wants to be at home with the kids. Jack gets his dream job as head of G.E. and immediately starts questioning whether he is truly happy. Jenna and Tracy struggle to figure out their identities now that their show is over.

The only character who doesn’t seem to experience any angst in the face of change is Kenneth. As the intern who becomes the head of the network, he is the only person completely comfortable in his new role. Perhaps he was the only one who had stayed present-focused all along. With his sunny optimism and his homespun wisdom, he never lost touch with his inner compass.

In an article in Yoga Journal, Kate Holcombe wrote about the idea of getting to know your true self, and how we often mistake some external attribute for who we really are. The Sanskrit word “asmita” refers to this misidentification which “happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change – everything from your mind to your body, appearance, or job title – instead of with the quiet place within you that does not change.”

It’s easier to accept change on the outside if we are more connected to our unchanging self, says Holcombe, and not identifying “too closely with the changeable aspects” of ourselves. That requires a great deal of self-acceptance because the answer to the question, “Who am I?” doesn’t change.IMG_0271

Accepting and connecting with the unchanging self makes it easier to see when you’ve gotten off course, easier to see what it is that serves your needs at any given moment. So, like Liz Lemon, you might realize that being a stay-at-home mom isn’t right for you; or like Jack Donaghy, you might see that it’s not getting the dream job that makes you happy, it’s what you can do in the job.

Sometimes you get your heart’s desire; sometimes you don’t. But “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” you might find that you’re very happy anyway, just because of who you are.