A Mixed Inheritance

The train sped further into the night. H and I sat in the restaurant car, hunger sated and the wine warming our veins. We spoke of the way centuries of poverty had sculpted the country around us, and how the techniques that had been developed to survive the hardships of a rural society and a harsh natural environment still affected our lives today. How, out of love, our parents inculcated in us a code of conduct that might still have had relevance in their childhood, but which is an emotional handicap in the world we inhabit now.

The parents of our generation of 40-something city dwelling professionals, were war children. The horrors of war may have passed them by, or affected them very closely through the loss of homes or loved ones, but nearly no-one escaped the poverty of post-war life. Many of them grew up in the countryside, in the middle of traditional and conservative values, and then moved to the city to study and make their way.

Prosperity came with the building of a modernist lifestyle and the Nordic welfare state. The old values went underground, but did not die. When we were born, our parents looked back to the beliefs of their parents, and began to protect us from the perceived evils and dangers of this world in ways that no longer reflected present reality.

With the age-old memory of hunger and insecurity still there in the background, we were gently steered to keep our head down, study hard, not aspire to anything too grand and to avoid deep emotions. It was felt that in this harsh world, "excessive" creativity and ambition were liabilities that we could not afford. We grew up to unwittingly believe that one of the marks of a good human being is to give up one’s dreams, or at least something important, for the benefit of others. A good member of society must avoid risk and clip one’s wings voluntarily. Otherwise we, beloved children, would falter and fall.

This subconscious heritage matters on both personal and societal levels. Perhaps the most important single factor in how it plays out in our lives is whether our families steered us to believe that the world is a harsh and hostile place, or that it is a sunny, open place that enables adventure and exploration. This, in turn, affected our conception of whether we would flourish or even survive there.

The rural value set is naturally not the only thing we unconsciously incorporated from our parents into our view of the world and of ourselves. We carry within ourselves so many things that are not really us: our parents’ depressions, insecurities, dreams. They live in the houses of our lives like squatters, flitting in and out of our range of inner vision.

Sometimes we still try to replicate in our lives today the moments that gave pleasure to us when we were young. A friend of mine spends quite a bit of money on expensive hotels, because in her childhood her parents were at their happiest on holidays in far places. That jolt of child-like pleasure at white table cloths and roses in silver vases makes up for the cost.

Now our parents have grown old and frail. They, too, have looked back on their lives and seen their choices in a new light. Perhaps they have managed to communicate to us the things they wished they had done differently. They have lost their place of absolute authority in our lives, and we are finally at the stage of taking ownership of our dreams and our right to choose.

When our parents tried to shield us from the things they feared, they limited our growth and happiness. And when we, in turn, carry over into our own parenting the same patterns, we clip back our children’s lives.

It’s time to put this obsolete inheritance to rest, and it begins with questions: what did you really want to do as a kid and as a teenager which was frowned upon? What dreams did you have that were either shot down or from which you were gently steered away? Look at your parents: how do they spend money, or not? How do they pamper themselves, where do they find release? Are they happy? Why not? What do you think they should be doing differently? Are you doing the same things differently? To what extent? Look at your siblings: in what ways do they think and act like your parents? Do you act the same way, or not? Do you allow your children to pursue what they are interested in? Do you try to steer their interest in school subjects, the way they spend their free time? Why, and in what directions? Why are your choices “better” than theirs?

As we stepped out on the platform and to the cold, clear Northern morning, H and I were in agreement. In order to recognise the pre-set schemes in our minds and to free ourselves from them, we have to test new ways of behaving and thinking. It may feel unnatural and even reprehensible, but it is the only way to distinguish what you really want and what you are really like. Eventually it will make life freer and lighter. In the best case scenario, all our parents will cheer us on for the bravery of remaking our lives and our world. Our kids certainly will.