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Legacies

Legacies

One of the great observations of life is what has been called the “law of the reverse,” according to which things grow and mature, reach their prime, and then undergo an inevitable decline. From the earth all living things come forth, and to the earth all return. A rose, an animal, a human being, or a nation—each has its day, and this world is no permanent home.

We see this in a particularly poignant form in the cycle of the human family, where children grow up and become parents, who then in turn become as children again. The elderly man, doddering and eventually needing to be supported, fed, and so on, is a reprise of childhood. Dependently we arrive in this world; dependently we take our leave of it, and while a good case can be made that we are indeed dependent all our lives on forces beyond our control, the beginning and end of life seem to make the point dramatically. In cultures that tend to be informed by a valuing of ancestors, the elderly are accorded great respect, so that the care they gave their little ones is extended to them in their old age, and the cycle of care turns from generation to generation. Sadly, aging parents are not universally valued. In fact, in the West, the modern phenomenon of adult children disowning their parents has reached epidemic numbers—and this is happening not only in cases where parental abuses might explain and even justify the estrangement, but in families where loving parents, mothers and fathers who did the best they knew how, made the inevitable mistakes, but for the most part provided nurturing, loving homes for their sons and daughters during their growing up years, have been summarily rejected, denied access to grandchildren, and subjected to unexplained intensities of resentment and recriminations.

There is a parable from the East that tells of a middle-aged man whose elderly father has become something of a burden. The son comes to feel that the old man has lived long enough, and decides to seal him in a wooden box, wheel the box up a nearby mountain, and tip the box over the edge of a cliff. He carries out this heartless plan and gets the box up the mountain to the place where he means to end his father’s life, when just then he hears a gentle tapping coming from inside the crate. “Yes, father,” he says, “what is it?” The father replies, “I was just thinking, you may want to throw me from this mountain but save the box. You’re going to need it when it’s your turn.

We take the point of the parable, that we receive as we give, but beyond this, it implies a more specific invitation, an opportunity, to examine and revise the conclusions we have reached about our parents. Perhaps we have been too harsh, too dismissive, reducing them to our reactions to them, missing much or even most of their humanness, holding them to some standard of perfection that we may never have outgrown. It is a matter of focus—and this remains true whether or not our parents are alive, for long after they have gone, we still may be unresolved and contradicted in the assumptions and stories we harbor about them. We can see what was wrong or what was right, the wounds they gave us or the gifts—and in making the better choice, we free both them and ourselves. In the end, when we look back, our most important legacy may be the one that we offer our parents.


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