“How can someone stop thinking about his or her dead parents? Is this really possible?” Mirka, by email.
After I finished my studies I worked as a carer for the elderly for a few months. It was a difficult job, but there are some people I remember fondly. One of them was a woman in her 90s, with memory loss and hearing problems. I’d cook lunch for her and then sit and listen as she’d eat and share stories about her life. She had been married and had several children. But the people that she talked about the most, that she seemed to remember best, were her parents.
The thought scared me. Even when we are very old, and we forget what we did yesterday or who our neighbours are, we remember our parents. It scared me because it showed that there are things that we can never leave behind, that memories from a distant past can come back to haunt (or, of course, delight) us. We are not in control of what we remember. Time does not heal everything. It does not wash it all away like a benevolent numbing wave.
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It seems we simply cannot leave some people behind, especially people who are dead and whom we may wish to forget, because remembering hurts. It may hurt because we miss them and our ongoing love for them is painful. It may hurt because we feel guilty for not appreciating them more. Or it may hurt because we still can’t forgive them.
Whatever the reason, we may wish to live in a world in which they do not exist, not even in our minds, because we cannot feel the loss of something that we never think about. So we believe that, if only we could forget, there would be no loss, nor pain. We may even believe that forgetting about our parents will somehow make us free to finally be ourselves.
Perhaps all this is true, but perhaps that is also the wrong way to think about it.
Here is a thought that you may find either soothing or terrifying: I don’t think it is possible to ever experience a world in which our parents are completely absent. To start with the obvious reasons, our parents are part of us, biologically and psychologically. We are who we are because of who they are, or were.
There are always going to be moments when we’ll look in the mirror and recognise their smile in the way we smile, or remember the way they waved their hands in the air in frustration, because we do that too. Perhaps we have a temper, like them; perhaps we are good with children, just as they were. Our confidence or insecurity, our particular fears and the way we love, are influenced by them.
Of course we have some freedom and independence as well, because there are parts of ourselves that have been shaped by factors that have nothing to do with our parents, and because we can partly choose who we are. But there are always traces of our parents in us – some good, others less so.
Most parents leave a legacy that is a mixture of positives and negatives. That is only human. And if we have children, we will be present in them in the same way, and so on. That’s how the reproduction of life works, and we join in the dance.
Indeed, if we want, we can go further and think about all the history and generations and natural factors that went into the making of ourselves. It is a bit dizzying, but also an incredibly expansive thought. To borrow a line from American transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, you can say: “I contain multitudes.”
We can think about this as a matter of biology, a matter of culture, a philosophical question of personal identity or as a spiritual perspective. I like to think that the separation between these approaches is porous, and we can adopt all of them together.
None of this denies our individuality. It is rather about recognising that our individuality is not independent of what we conceive as “not us”, and that parents are a big part of the individual we are.
The nature of memory
Psychologically, two factors explain the pervasive nature of memories related to our parents: one is the fact that emotionally intense experiences last longer in our memory. The other is that we are more likely to create memories when things are new – and childhood is the time of our lives when so many things we experience are novel and important.
Parents are typically central in both cases. Our first emotions take place with them. They are present during our first explorations of the world and of ourselves. So if we put them together it becomes clear that parent-related situations have a greater chance of being impressed in our memories than almost anything else.
But does this mean that we are stuck with memories of our parents, sometimes painful, replaying in our minds all the time, day after day? Not at all.
I think that we can use the inescapable presence of our parents within us as a spring to move forward and as a liberating knowledge to project ourselves outward into the world. That someone is part of us does not mean that we must think about them all the time. Or even at all. It means that we are free, in fact, to think about everything else, because we don’t have to keep our thoughts fixed on them in order for them to be present. They already, always, are.
If we have made peace with this composite identity, if we have incorporated and allowed their legacy into us in ways that serve us and we can accept, then we do not need to tend to it. We are able to place our full attention on to the things in the world that require it, without feeling the guilt of letting our parents go. If anything, we are carrying them forward.
Sometimes, though, the aspects of ourselves that are shaped by our parents are causes of suffering, and we need to observe them and work on them. There may be haunting memories – or legacies – that we cannot ignore. Perhaps the English poet Philip Larkin captured this sense of negative inheritance most memorably in his searingly frank This Be The Verse:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
If this is the case, we may need to remember to go back to the roots of the suffering and examine them, to try to resolve them. This is often worth doing, particularly if we have trouble forgiving our parents for having wronged us. Regretting the fact that we never forgave them, or feeling shame because we still love the people who humiliated and hurt us can be a deep source of trauma. The easy option is often to try to forget about it.
But confronting the memories can help us move on. Perhaps it is possible, as Larkin also pointed out, that however much our parents wronged us, they were also let down by their parents, who were in turn let down by their parents. This doesn’t justify their actions. But accepting that they were to some extent also victims, or that they also had some good qualities, can be a way of breaking a dark cycle – a way of refusing to inherit such behaviour.
So coming to terms with dark memories, and carrying them with us, can make us exceptional people. And if we still can’t forgive our parents, thinking about them could at least help us to accept that we can’t forgive them. And that acceptance may make our memories less painful – fleeting, occasional thoughts rather than relentless, towering waves of pain and anxiety.
The same is true for feelings of guilt. Sure, we could have all shown our parents more love and care. But chances are they felt exactly the same about their parents, and therefore always understood that we loved them more than we could say. It’s a comforting thought.
Ultimately, we are bound up with the people who generated us and who brought us up (sometimes they are the same, sometimes they are not).
But we can choose where to turn our gaze. Indeed, I’d argue that it is precisely because of the inescapable presence of these people, that we have greater freedom to direct our attention elsewhere, outward, to wherever it is needed. And we can be assured they will be with us, in some way, whichever path we choose to take.
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