sons and fathers, pt. 2

Palestinian field.

In the course of writing the last post, I realized that there is a second direction the issue of fathers and sons may be taken. I wrote the following almost immediately after finishing yesterday’s post:

Besides “What am I?,” intergenerational relationships force us to ask another question: “Who am I?” Instead of a question of worth, this is a question of identity.

In Paul Farmer’s case, he and Tracy Kidder seem to think it’s reasonable to explain the character and concerns of the son with reference to his father. There is a sense in which Paul’s identity is wrapped up in his father’s identity; the conquests and fixations of Paul, Sr. trickle down into Paul’s own fixated personality. In a word, Paul is “his father’s son.”

But what happens when I don’t want to be “my father’s son”? To what extent can I fashion an identity for myself with no reference to my biological origins?

It has become common to see the shelves of bookstores stocked with volume after volume recounting the details of an author’s life experience. But more than relate a series of events, these “memoirs” hope to cast a unique identity before the reader. By highlighting certain events and undermining others, or by taking a critical attitude toward some personalities and a tone of admiration toward others, the author implies that the “who” writing is distinct (and usually much more sophisticated!) from the “who” that might have arisen from the experiences recounted.

Admittedly, there are some very insightful and authentic memoirs. And the practice of telling and retelling our stories to others is part of how we make sense out of our lives; it’s part of our search for unity among the fragmentation that characterizes us. But I’ve noticed these books often merely denounce their childhood (and various characters associated with their childhood—parents, family members, pastors) from an “enlightened” adult perspective. This is just one manifestation of an attempt to liberate one’s identity from familial relationships.

A subtler manifestation of this same impulse is more widespread. It trades on the increased mobility of our culture to distance (both physically and emotionally) one from one’s family. For example, my sister recently moved to a remote part of Hawaii. Her community there is made up almost entirely of hippie expatriates from “the mainland.” During my visit there, I met one after another individual who seemed to be running away from their past or “shutting the door” on a set of relationships. I heard a story about a woman who, after her kids had grown up, severed communication with them and declared “that life was over” for her. She moved to Hawaii and hasn’t seen them since.

So this identity game can be played both ways: a child may construct an identity without reference to their parents, or vice versa. The hippie community—and the mantra, “I am who I want to be”—is what gives them their new identity.

Now, I don’t wish to underestimate the (potential) suffering, emotional or otherwise, one can experience as a result of intergenerational relationships. I am not saying one ought to stay in a dangerous or unhealthy situation. But I do wish to question the extent to which we are able to extricate our identities from these situations, to recreate ourselves as “free agents” in the world of social relations.

Part of what it means to be a human is being connected in a very material (i.e., flesh and blood) way to others. Further, part of the mystery (and, sometimes, the tragedy) of being human is that we can’t choose whom we’re connected to. Every kid has fantasies of being brothers or sisters with their best friend, but the reality is our lives are characterized by a sense of predetermination. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger called this an experience of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). He claimed that native to our experience is “the facticity of [life’s] being handed over.” So despite my childhood fantasies, some aspects my life (like the fact that my best friend is my best friend and not my brother) are emphatically not the products of my making.

Recognizing this mystery is necessary if we wish live lives in touch with reality. But embracing it—that requires grace.

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