What We Do with Our Inheritance

Each one of us, no matter our circumstances, is the unexpected beneficiary of those who came before. Sure, some of you might argue, “Eh, I got nothin’ from my old man but this lousy phlebitis,” or, “My mom was the biggest shrew alive and my grandmother did everything she could to take first there, too.” True enough—I’m not claiming that our predecessors didn’t pass on their share of serious dysfunction, but let’s face it: they are the reason we’re here. Further, not only are you alive, but you’re literate and have access to the Internet. Let’s start there, shall we?

 

I say all this because for as many problems and neuroses that get passed along from generation to generation, in the long run, we’ve received a treasure chest of good things from these same folks—whether we’d want to sit down and have dinner with them or not. We may grimace and complain before we’re willing to admit that, yes, that SOB had a lot of grit to get through what he did or as cold as she was, she made sure her kids were fed and clothed; there are hugely powerful legacies our relatives left us. As re-booters, it’s important that we acknowledge this.

 

But the flipside of such examination requires us to ponder our contemporaries who celebrate whatever success their progenitors had because they believe/hope this familial connection grants them a presumption of superiority by the world. Alas, I am well acquainted with several examples of this subspecies—Bad Mood Betty and her ilk readily come to mind.  These are people who have dedicated a noticeable portion of their lives to celebrating those who came before as a not very subtle means to celebrate themselves.

 

Now the tangent I’m about to take gets a little tricky, so stay with me. I know other people who unnecessarily beat themselves up because they haven’t achieved what Big Daddy managed, or feel needlessly guilty because what they’ve been able to achieve in this life has so thoroughly benefitted from the hard work of earlier generations. These attitudes, too, are ill advised because they substantially diminish what the current generation has achieved in its own right! There is no such thing as honest success or an act of generosity that “doesn’t count.”

 

Although the arrogance of the Bad Mood Bettys of the world can be far more obnoxious, the individuals who give themselves a hard time because they haven’t achieved the notoriety or financial or academic success of Ancestors A, B, or C are equally on the wrong course. We have no say as to where we come into this world—no say as to the circumstances that greet us. And, we shouldn’t waste a single minute gloating, being resentful, or feeling guilty about where our life began. What counts is what we do with what we are given.

 

So I ask you, are we celebrating tradition because we genuinely admire the qualities of hard work, honesty, and courage of our progenitors OR are we doing it as a pretense to bolster ourselves? Are we working hard at school or the family business because we care about learning what needs to be learned and done or because we’re terrified that we will never manage to “live up” to the benchmarks they set?

 

What I am exploring in this post is the motivation underlying your actions and attitudes. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What color lenses are you looking through?

 

It is equally bad to sit around and mope that you don’t “deserve” your good fortune as it is to believe you are superior simply because you fell into a family of foosball prodigies. Do you revere Genius Uncle Joe because he invented the best way to slice bread (and therefore, the world must deduce your own brilliant bread slicing capabilities) or because you admire the determination, hard work, and careful planning it took for Uncle J to achieve this? There is a world of difference in these two mindsets, despite the fact that the celebratory banner and parade may be identical.

 

And, what I want to make clear is that this post applies equally to any situation—whether we’re talking about someone who arrived penniless in this country but managed to make a home for themselves and their children or are examining legacies on a Rockefeller scale—it’s the efforts, qualities, and character of the people who established these legacies that matters. These traits and behaviors (positive or negative) can inspire us in how we choose to live our lives. But please keep in mind that that is all they are—examples; they don’t give us any other inherent advantage or disadvantage. We may have to work harder to overcome certain conditions, but whether or not we choose to is our responsibility. Tradition for tradition’s sake doesn’t cut it.

 

I realize I’ve gone on longer than normal for this particular post, but there was no sensible way to split it into two parts. The takeaway is this: every single one of us has mixed feelings about our families—as our progeny will, no doubt, feel about us. But what is key to remember is 1) that all of us have relatives who posses qualities and behaviors worth admiring, 2) we need to understand that admiring those qualities doesn’t mean they automatically get transferred to us (we gotta work to earn them), 3) it is a waste of time to sit around and either feel guilty about the advantages we received as a birthright or to feel we’re doomed because we have decided that we can’t measure up, and 4) it is our responsibility to do what we can with this unasked-for inheritance that would make them proud of us.

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