Friday, February 12, 2016

Liberating Inheritances

When people die, they always leave something.  Plenty of people lose parents and were left with, say, thousands of dollars of hospital bills instead of thousands of dollars of bonus inheritance. That is still  something. Whether we are left with negative or positive, there's an inheritance.

I have privilege. My parents didn't leave behind as much money, but their parents did. And likely because my parents died so young - in their fifties, and while I was a teen - the money from their parents, who were all gone by the time I was twenty-two - came to me and my brothers. Enough to help me get a house, help out with some debts and investments. Enough to give me security for my future as a self-employed contemplative arts instructor. That's a definite positive inheritance I wanted to acknowledge before I point out some less positive gifts.

I also inherited a strong sense of needing to blame: blame someone, find fault, or, if no one else can be pinned for it, blame myself. I know this is societal as much as it is personal - find someone in the Midwestern, middle class, liberal white world who doesn't either struggle with blame or shame or both, and you've found an exception, not a rule. However, the flavor of it in my family, when tied to severe illnesses - both physical and mental - and sudden or early deaths, took on a sense of importance above and beyond the usual.

Recently I have been realizing that some part of me, a deep, inner, quiet child part, is 100% convinced that there's nothing worse than having no one to blame. Someone has to be at fault, and here's the intense, somewhat universal logic: otherwise life is chaos. Nothing makes sense if there is no one to blame. Some of us resort to resenting other people or our systems, some of us resort to God.

If I lean into the faith I have built in Buddhism, my conscious, adult frontal lobe knows there's a lot of lottery at stake - combinations of fate, chance, karma and in-the-moment responses combined with habit. And inheritance. However, it would be too easy to say that because I learned certain behaviors from my parents, it is their fault. A lot of people blame parents, but in the end, we simply wind up blaming the flavor of our suffering. Meanwhile, everyone has their own individual flavor, but all of us are suffering. Is it worth it to blame the flavor, or do we need to look at root causes?

Looking at institutionalized racism, looking at a culture that encourages shame - whether on a personal or societal level, or both, what we really inherit are these things. And noticing the deeper, societal level of this helps me to remove blame entirely. Because society, culture, institutions are all much more complex than a single person's choices. The funny thing is, once I remove blame, I find agency. If there's no one person to blame, then that means we can all make a chance.

My parents taught me to blame, to find fault, and most of all, to take it on myself when I have no other options. But they taught me this because it was in their water. Their style of handling a larger societal situation. If I get stuck on this inheritance, I wind up perpetuating it to feel (strangely) closer to them. I don't want that kind of intimacy anymore.

I want inheritances that are positive and worthy - nature, jazz music, puns - and the other ones I want to fold into larger struggles and find ways to liberate all of us. First stop: liberating us from shame and blame, finding real responsibility and agency. For me, this is the intimate way to undermine institutional racism and sexism, to remove power from the points of power. One by one, withdrawing our investments, refusing our inheritances, building a new legacy that honors the dreams - rather than the nightmares - of those who have gone before.

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