Special Among the Things Families Pass Along

In “Keeping Our Lost Loved-Ones Alive,” I defined an “Heirloom” as “something passed along by earlier generations that later generations will experience as something of value.”

That makes the Heirloom an excellent means of creating positive bonds across generations.

And such bonds are important. Both between the present and past generations, and between present and future generations.

How important they are can be inferred from:

  • the ubiquity of “ancestors” playing major cultural roles in the lives of peoples all over the world, and throughout history (as the living look backward into the past); and
  • the tremendous reservoir of love so many grandparents feel for their grandchildren, i.e. for their “descendants” (as the living look forward into the future) .

So widespread are the signs that those positive bonds across generations are important to people that one might reasonably infer that it is built into our nature.

And if it is granted that valuing good inter-generation connection is built into our humanity, it more or less follows that developing such positive connections — both with the generations gone by and those to come – will enhance our lives.

Families pass along – across their generations – many things of great importance. Among those, the Heirloom – as defined above – can play an especially valuable role in creating those positive bonds.

** Life itself is one indispensable thing that gets passed along through the family, coming to us through the ancestral generations. DNA.

We can tell how much people care about that vital biological connection from the great interest so many people have in tracing their genealogy. Even if genealogy gives us no more than a name on a branching tree, it gives some answer to that meaningful (and maybe built-in) question, “Where did I come from?”

** But DNA is not the only essential thing that gets passed through the generations. Besides life itself, there’s also Family culture. When it comes to another fundamental question — “How did I come to be what I am?” – it is “family culture” that provides the answer.

  • (Like the man who told me that every male in his family eventually builds his own house with his own two hands.
  • (Like people who were abused as children growing up to be abusive parents.
  • (Like how the musical genius of Johann Sebastian Bach stood on the shoulders of the generations of serious musical creators to which he was the heir.

And most of all, like how – inevitably, and for better or for worseeach generation learns by example how to be a human being.)

** It is that “for better and for worse” that brings into focus the special value of the “Heirloom.” The Heirloom might be considered a third form of what families can pass forward in time, or perhaps a special category of “family culture.” Special in that only heirlooms come with a guarantee to be experienced as “of positive value.”

Families always have their imperfections, which their members experience as something of negative value. So some of what gets transmitted through the generations has injurious consequences.

But Heirlooms allow us to choose what gets passed along, with their purpose being – by definition — to provide something that enhances the quality of the experience of the future generation.

Thereby, the Descendants can get the “better” without the “worse.”

Heirlooms thus offer an important opportunity:

  • Although we cannot choose our genetic heritage,
  • and although, with family culture as well, we get the whole package (what we wished were different as well as what we cherish),
  • with Heirlooms – chosen to be “experienced as of positive value” — we can select, for passing along, only what we expect will enhance the lives of those to come.

That’s what makes the Heirloom a gift to generations of the future.

But it’s more than that we can choose what to pass along, like a valued set of silver or a wedding dress that future brides in the family might wear.

(One I grew up with was a shaving mug, of no obvious objective worth except that it was introduced as “This came with your great-grandfather when he crossed the Atlantic to America.”)

Besides choosing what we can pass along to our descendants – or besides even leaving it to our heirs to choose which of our belongings should “stay in the family” – we also have the opportunity to create an Heirloom.

“What do I have to offer that would be of greatest value to those who will come after me?” is a question that invites one to take stock both of oneself and of one’s deepest values.

It opens the path to performing an act of love that will nourish one’s descendants.

An act of love– because it means taking on trying to enhance their lives. And there are so many possible ways for the descendants to feel good, from enjoying an object of beauty to reading meaningful words.

Perhaps the most fundamental gift conveyed through the creation of an Heirloom is knowing that one’s ancestor cared about you enough to work to create something that enriches your experience in life.

A challenge that might be worth taking on for a whole range of reasons. Including discovering what is the best thing one has to offer future generations.

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