When Idealizing Isn’t Whitewashing

(This is the fourth in a series of columns.)

The creation of an Heirloom, I’ve emphasized, calls for giving “one’s best,” in order to maximize the “positive value” that the Descendants will experience from it.

That emphasis might seem to represent a call to whitewash the image of the family—a family that, it was said previously, passes along its “family culture” for better and for worse.

If our focus on is “what’s best,” doesn’t it create a false picture to leave out the “worse”?

Not really. For one thing, “something of value” doesn’t necessarily mean something pleasant and fun. People’s well-being depends in part on their being able to cope well with the brokenness they encounter, including the brokenness that inevitably is part of what the family passes along.

An heirloom that helps people deal in a healthy way with the struggles, the traumas, the secrets, the scandals, the conflicts, the failures that may be part of the family experience has surely “enhanced the experience” of those people.

(A friend of mine, thinking about what he’d like to tell his Descendants, has said that what he’d want to tell about himself – as maybe what’s “best” about him – is how he’d honestly faced his difficulties and worked to overcome them.)

History offers plenty of illustrations of the dangers of failing to confront the darker aspects of one’s history.

That’s been illustrated at the collective/national (rather than the familial) level by the continuing consequences of the failure of the Japanese to acknowledge their brutalization of their Asian neighbors in the 1930s and 40s, and the refusal of the Turks to acknowledge their genocide of the Armenians as World War I came to a close.

Both of those instances exemplify how the denial of past brokenness creates an obstacle to the healing of the world.

In families, as in nations, anything that helps heal past brokenness is surely “something of value.”

Nonetheless, I would argue that as important as it is to confront what’s broken in our past, more of our attention should be devoted to celebrating what’s best in our heritage.

What led me to that conclusion – indirectly – was a personal experience. It involved what I observed happening within me in the wake of my mother’s death.

My relationship with my mother, as nourishing as it was in many respects, also had its difficult aspects. After she died, I noticed how – without my “doing” anything to make it happen — my sense of her evolved. The things that had annoyed me, while they didn’t disappear from my memory, quite noticeably receded in importance. And those aspects of her worth treasuring came to the fore.

That positive shift in emphasis has been reflected in how I’ve portrayed her in recent writings here, e.g. referring to

  • the epitaph my brother and I chose to describe her (“Devoted to Family and Creative Expression”);
  • her success in keeping her mother “alive” as a loving memory despite the loss imposed by death;
  • and her having been a great teacher.

It is “what’s best” in her that I seek to immortalize.

Other people have told me they’ve experienced the same thing with their “lost loved-ones”: what was bothersome becomes less salient in memory, while what was best in them shines forth more brightly.

The metaphor that came to me, as I observed this posthumous evolution of my image of my mother, and as others confirmed they’d also gone through such a process, was panning for gold. As the stream of time washes through, the mixture in the pan that had characterized one’s ongoing, living relationship got refined until one ends up with just the nuggets of gold.

This seems to happen so naturally that I suspect that it is built into our nature to process the loss of a loved one this way. And if that’s so, that suggests that this kind of “panning for gold” has served us and our kind well.

It seems reasonable to extend this pattern regarding how we (apparently) tend to deal with lost loved-ones to how we deal more generally with our overall legacy from the past: i.e. that – even if part of our task is to heal the brokenness we inherit — it is life-serving to accentuate “the best.”

“Life-serving” because surely a major task is to gain inspiration from the past for what we should seek to embody in the present to use for building toward the best possible future.

Which is why most of the Heirlooms we create should rightly be embodiments of “what’s best” in a purely positive sense, i.e. what can not only be experienced as “something of value” but also provide some image to inspire future generations to give of their best.

The over-representation of “what’s best” does result in a kind of idealization, or perhaps one might call it romanticization. But that doesn’t make it a “false history.”

Here’s what I think is the important distinction:

  • It is natural and good to romanticize/idealize in order to enhance an important truth.
  • But it is not OK to romanticize in order to sell what’s mostly a Lie.

(For example, it is fine for the heirs of the Confederacy to celebrate the military skill and valor of some of their commanders, and the admirable traits of character of a Robert E. Lee. But it’s not OK to concoct a false notion of some noble Lost Cause for which they fought. Not OK because it represents a Lie—since the true “cause” was that by which the Confederacy defined itself at the outset: i.e. “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” I.e., White Supremacy. Not OK because the destructive consequences of that “romanticization” are still visible in America today.)

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