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.
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.