We Are Not Our Own

By: Nate
December 18, 2013
My Grandmother, From Whence Commeth My Vanity

My Grandmother, From Whence Cometh My Vanity

I’ve been thinking about Nephi’s phrase, “I Nephi having been born of goodly parents, therefore…”  It’s an interesting way to start a record.  Why did Nephi chose this, of all phrases to begin with?  To me, it seems that Nephi is saying, “because I was born of goodly parents, I am going to follow in their footsteps by writing my own record of God’s dealings in my life…”  It is a humble statement that acknowledges the role his parents played in his own current state of obedience and righteousness.  He seems to also be acknowledging that without his parents, he might not be writing this story, nor even be a goodly person himself.

The idea that we are dependent on our parents for much of who we are, positive and negative, is a truth that has perplexed and fascinated me over for the past few years.  Perhaps for others, it is self-evident.  It’s perfectly obvious that if they had been born under different circumstances, they would turn out much differently, better or worse.  But growing up, this idea was completely foreign to me.  I felt so independent, so personally righteous, that I was truly the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.  I always felt that somehow, regardless of the circumstances, I would have found my way to the Mormon church, because it was my eternal soul that was really guiding my ship, not my genes, or my culture, or the teachings of my parents.

But now this paradigm has crumbled, and I no longer can see myself as an independent, self-governing intelligence.  I am not own.  Rather I am a collection of blessings, curses, gifts and weaknesses living out independent lives within my own.  These things living inside of me, these blessings and curses seem so tangible now, so real, like living demons or angels inside of me.  They didn’t come into existence when I was born, but have been wandering the earth, within the bodies of my ancestors for generations.  And when I die, these demons and angels will not die with me, but somehow, they will live on in the lives of my children, or others whom I have affected in important ways.  As God says, “I will curse them unto the seventh generation.”

This truth came powerfully into my conscience while reading grandmother’s biography.  I realized that although I never really knew her, she was still very much alive within the bodies and minds of me and my siblings and their children.  Her particular curses and blessings came through the generations in a very potent way, because she was so close to my father, and my father was so close to us.  We cannot escape our ancestors.  They are with us, or rather, they ARE us in a very real way.

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Oh, the heavy burden of my grandmother’s restless narcissism

While it is true that we can “overcome” the influence of our ancestors through our independent choices, we can never escape it.  It is always there: something to deal with, something to build upon, something to heal and put to rest, or something to battle with all our lives.  Laman and Lemual rebelled against the blessings of their parents, but they could never escape them, and ultimately, their posterity returned to the fold.  The Lamanites were reputed to be very faithful to each other within their own families.  Abraham rebelled against his own wicked father, but still something pulled him to seek out the blessings of his grandfathers.  And then his own family turned out to be a disaster, with his great-grandchildren becoming murderers, perhaps living out the curses of Abraham’s father.  Likewise, I see my own ancestors looking anxiously upon the Pandora’s box of blessings and curses that they unleashed upon the world.  And I feel that something within them cannot truly find rest, until all is resolved, and until their own grand-children and great-grand-children are able to put to rest the demons passed down to them.

Reading the biographies of latter-day prophets and apostles is interesting.  They all seem to come from long lines of faith, sacrifice, and spiritual blessings.  Why is this?  Why can’t a prophet come from an alcoholic father, and an insecure mother?  It just doesn’t seem to happen. It seems to me that prophets are not really personal examples of independent righteous living.  Rather, they are collections of blessings, a grand tradition of righteousness.  They are not themselves.  They are only the tip of a great peak, built by the lives of dozens before them.   They are not necessarily individuals, somehow so righteous before this world that they were called to be prophets in this life.  They are collections of mortal traditions and blessings, enlivened by a strong pre-existent spirit born into them.  Heber J. Grant, whose spirituality has been questioned on this blog recently, reported an interesting vision, wherein he was told:

“I had done nothing to entitle me to that exalted position (of apostle), except that I had lived a clean, sweet life. It was given to me that because of my father having practically sacrificed his life in what was known as the great Reformation, so to speak, of the people in early days, having been practically a martyr, that the Prophet Joseph and my father desired me to have that position, and it was because of their faithful labors that I was called, and not because of anything I had done of myself or any great thing that I had accomplished.”

I don’t want to overestimate the influence of genetics.  Genetics probably ultimately doesn’t mean much.  A crude metaphor would be that genetics determines the “car” you drive in this life.  Your car might be fast or slow, beautiful or ugly, reliable, or constantly breaking down.  But ultimately, it’s merely a temporary means of transportation.  What is important is real family teaching, tradition, and culture. Taking the car metaphor one step further: it is not the “car” our parents give us, but the “map” they give us that is the important part.  How they teach us to drive, where to go, who to go with, etc.  Those are the real things that will truly have eternal meaning.   The blessings and curses we inherit are in the ”maps” and “instructions” that our parents pass on to us.

In the LDS church, we do a lot of Family History.  But perhaps even more important than baptizing our dead ancestors, is tracing the history our family has left within our own soul, rooting out the curses they left us, and capitalizing upon the blessings.  We are our Family History.

Questions:

  • Do we underestimate or overestimate the influence of our families upon us?
  • How much of who we are can be attributed to our environment and heritage?
  • How much of who we are can be attributed to choices we’ve made as independent, eternal spirits?
  • Should there be more to our Family History than simply gathering names for temple work?

9 Responses to We Are Not Our Own

  1. Frank Pellett on December 18, 2013 at 2:05 PM

    It wasn’t until after my first marriage ended that I really got to know my ancestors, how one line in particular was a long set of ne’er do wells, drunks, and horrible husbands who abandoned their family. My own father did somewhat better in this (converting to the Church helped), and I hope to do even better so my own children can completely break the cycle. I’ve already tried to warn them of the family history with alcohol, as an additional reason for them not to try that road, or anything potentially addictive, as it tends to rather easily destroy us.

    I think there a good use in there for that quote, “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”. It’s not just for global issues, but also for our own lives. How would knowing about the joys and trials of our fore-parents have effected how we approach things today?

    I’m a bit mixed on gathering names for family history work, rather than trying to delve into full biographies. it’s good to know the person for who they are, but sometimes all you have is a date. Better to get both, if at all possible.

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  2. hawkgrrrl on December 18, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    “Why can’t a prophet come from an alcoholic father” Like Joseph Smith, Jr?

    This is something I too have thought a lot about. I even blogged about it a long time ago here: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/07/15/the-genetics-of-sin/ In that post, I shared this story: “A good friend of ours got arrested once for shoplifting. He was just a kid at the time and was really upset while they were booking him. He begged them not to tell his mom. One of the officers rolled his eyes at this, and they all thought this was hilarious. As it turned out, his mom was regularly picked up for shoplifting.”

    I often think about something my mom said my grandparents said to her after she and my dad joined the Mormon church. They warned her not to take religion too seriously. I’ve always liked that advice.

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  3. Nate on December 19, 2013 at 3:12 AM

    Thanks for your comment Frank. You are absolutely right that we are destined to relive the past if we don’t learn from it. (I would say even if we learn from it sometimes!)

    Hawkgrrrl, was Joseph Smith Sr really an alcoholic? It might explain some of Joseph Smith Jr’s demons. It might explain some of the motivation for the Word of Wisdom. Or is “alcoholic” an exageration for Sr? Some people just like to drink, but it doesn’t overly effect their lives.

    Very funny story about the shoplifting!

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  4. Hedgehog on December 19, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    I feel a fondness for my non-conformist ancestors and their quirky traits. I’d love to know much more detail about them.

    The following takes an interesting look at nature/nurture – the neuro-scientist who leaned heavily towards nature discovers he has the same neurological structures as his psycopathic patients, but a much happier upbringing and had to re-examine the role of nurture:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010mcl1

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  5. Andrew on December 19, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    Nate – I don’t know if JS Sr. could be classified as an alcoholic, but to my knowledge he did self medicate with alcohol from time to time.

    As far as apostles with less than perfect family lives, Elder Scott comes to mind. He visited my mission while I was serving there and told a very interesting story about himself. He said that his family was pretty inactive in the church when he was growing up and so he was pretty inactive by default as well. He went to U. of Utah and didn’t really care to go on a mission, so he didn’t.

    Either shortly before or after graduating, he fell in love with a girl. She was adamant that her husband be a returned missionary. He decided, as a college graduate, to go on a mission (not because he felt some great calling to be a missionary, but because he wanted this girl). They stayed together throughout his mission and got married something like 8 days after he got home.

    It’s certainly not a story about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it does break the mold about the usual family stories we hear from GAs.

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  6. Brad on December 19, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    I didn’t read a thing…couldn’t get past that first picture of your grandma. Whoa…

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  7. hawkgrrrl on December 19, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    JS Sr sure had a lot of the classic signs of an alcoholic, including depression, but nobody called it that back then. I have always thought he probably was.

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  8. Jared L. on December 20, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father;”

    I read this as “because my parents were rich (lots of posts out there on the translation of “goodly”), I had an education.” Lehi’s “learning” was not spiritual at the time. After all, he had riches. Enough for Laban to want to steal. How many holy men in the scriptures had that kind of wealth?

    “… therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.”

    Read: “Since I have had some education, I know how to write, and I have something to write about. So here we go…”

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  9. Nate on December 20, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    That’s fascinating Jared, and it makes sense. It’s probably more accurate than my interpretation. Thanks for sharing.

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