Op-ed column: Holiday family rituals let us incorporate the best of our past

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are an emotional time, a roller coaster ride during which on

The annual, much-anticipated, much-dreaded rituals are near. Soon, by plane, train, car or Skype, most of us will return in one way or another to our past, be once more in the unremitting company of our relatives.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are an emotional time, a roller coaster ride during which one knows both the depths and the transport of love. Your family knows you as no other; your family has absolutely no inkling of what you’ve since done and become.

It’s an unavoidable rite, this returning to one’s roots. It’s bliss like none other. It’s excruciating pain.

Ulysses, Frost’s hired man, Dorothy lost in Oz — all of them are struggling to reach home. It’s an ancient pattern this setting off, the search, the trials, and finally the return. The necessary return. That new self, so hard won, will not be totally valid until you take it home. For without the return to assess the strength gained, the growth attained — you’re still partial.

Need for progress

But there’s a competing pattern — particularly American I think — not circular but linear, dictating an ever-forward progress from your beginning, leading in undeviating line to somewhere else. As the title of one novel about a woman fleeing her origins so deftly put it, “Anywhere but Here.”

We Americans seem to have this terrible need to be something other. Where we begin, we believe, is but a stepping stone toward an eventual metamorphosis into someone else. Think of Cinderella’s rescue from the ashes, the ugly duckling who is actually a swan.

Perhaps this yearning is implicit in our cultural legacy of the once seemingly endless frontier. It probably has a lot to do with immigrant ancestors venturing the new world to improve their lot. Wherever this national compulsion comes from, it ever pushes us to do more, be more, exceed ourselves. And discard the past. For the past is old, outmoded stuff with nothing to tell us. Memories are a burden. And roots only tie you down.

But incorporating the past within the present can be maturity; allowing the past can be painful too. There may be many a good reason to seal that door. But people do grow in strength as they survive cruel and outrageous fortune. And making peace with one’s origins frees us to grow.

If you go back, the monsters will have dwindled. If you’ve been running, you may stop, for no one’s been chasing you; nor have they been for years. Circling back you get a clearer view — with less confusion. And there may be further rewards. You may retrieve what you have sacrificed: old friends and the love of those who will always hold it for you simply because you are their own.

Individual self

Several years ago, I taught in China. Much about Western ways were fascinating to my students — as was much about their ways to me. One particular difference stands out. After discussing the price of individuality, and its heroism, in Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” one of my most perceptive students came to me after class. Did I truly believe there was such a thing as an individual self?

Taught since infancy in the centrality of the family, with one’s identity found within it, she found an individual and independent self a strange thought. To my American sensibility, indoctrinated since childhood in the necessity of detachment, of standing self-reliant and apart, this was not a question. Until she asked. And I’ve been conscious of the tension between the two ever since.

We lose much when we deny our need for those we love and our dependence upon them. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a cohort of all those who help and counsel and support, to sustain an adult. No man, truly, is an island, much less a weight-bearing pillar, alone, iron-strong and needing no one self. We waver, we doubt, we question.

Dangerous denial

Our certainties in the world shift all the time. Our parents, our childhood, our past loves are part of us. Denying them denies one’s basic self. Deny at your peril what you love.

Better to incorporate. As prospectors glean for gold, washing away the silt, discarding the murk, a return and an altered look reveals the worth. Keep what is gained in your travels; respect what is left.

Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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