“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”
A couple of years ago, sitting around the dinner table, I heard my father’s voice . . . as plain as day. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I knew the second that I said it that it was my father’s voice. It was a voice that I had promised myself I would never use with my own children . . . but there it was . . . loud and clear . . . my father’s voice. In that split second of hearing that tone . . . that inflection . . . those words, slip from my lips, I was thrown back into my own childhood . . . my own memories. It was like my father was sitting right there. It was scary . . .
. . . but, not uncommon. I have heard many people and friends tell me that the older that they get the more they have become like their parents. They tell me that they use the words and phrases that their parents used. They use the tone of voice . . . the mannerisms . . . and, it amazed them. It amazed them because—like me—they swore they would never be like their parents, and then—many years later—they are slowly becoming their parents. I think that it happens to everyone to varying degrees. I think that there are always echoes of our parents in all of our lives . . . some good, some bad, and some indifferent.
And, why shouldn’t there be . . . after all, who we spent the majority of our developing years with as we grew into what we thought was independence . . . our parents. By word and example our parents molded us and shaped us—at least a good portion—into the people we are today. Their good points, bad points, and all the points in between. They stuff our minds, or as in my case—the rock garden, with their thoughts, opinions, words, and actions. As impressionable, malleable, simpletons that we were as we grew up . . . they had a lot to do with who we grew up to be. That is a proven psychological fact . . . they mold us and shape us until we begin to exert our desire for independence . . . to be our own person. This happens psychologically and spiritually . . . around the time we hit the age of 18 years old. That is the age we begin to “distance” ourselves from our parents and other adults . . . the age we begin to explore the world on our own . . . that we begin to test the lessons we were taught. And, not surprisingly, the age that we declare that we will never be like our parents.
The funny thing—or should I say, the peculiar thing—is that few us ever really fall far from the tree no matter how hard we work at not being our parents . . . no matter how much effort we put into differentiating ourselves. Our parents still show up. Their voices echo through our voices . . . and, it can be shocking.
Shocking when the words we say . . . or the actions we take . . . are the very words and actions we swore we would never take part in because they were so painful the first time we experienced them. Usually it is those words and actions that shock us . . . flinging back to those moments we worked so hard to bury and forget. It is rarely the happy words or actions we catch ourselves echoing, but the more negative one that make us shake.
But, it is not only our parents who fill our minds as we grow through life. There are the words and actions of others . . . the words and actions we read in the newspaper, hear on the radio, or view on the television. They are sneak into our minds as we are growing. They are stuffed in there too . . . good, bad, or indifferent. These players also do their part to make us the people we are today.
Now, I imagine that there are a lot of folks out there that would tell me that I am full of hooey . . . full of proverbial b.s. . . . liberal babbling. Yet, I don’t think that I am. I think that they say that because . . . well, because they are scared to face the truth. The truth being that they are not as independent as they think they are . . . they are not that far removed from their parents . . . that they did not accomplish the goal of distancing and differentiating themselves from the very parents they swore they would never be like. The truth is . . . very few of us know how to think for ourselves.
I remember a time when a friend and I got into a hot and heavy discussion, or should I say argument, about politics. Over and over again I heard the rhetoric spewing from my friend’s mouth . . . in the end we agreed to disagree and move on. Then he took me to visit his parents. In a conversation with his father I thought I was in a time warp . . . a déjà vu situation . . . in which I was hearing my friend’s words again, but they were not my friend’s words at all . . . they were his father’s. His father echoed through my friend’s words and so-called beliefs. They were two supposedly individuals who were actually cut from the same cloth. It did not matter which one I asked, they always said the same thing . . . which happened to be the rhetoric of others before them. They could not think for themselves.
It is no different in the church. Try this sometime . . . ask a person a question about what some important theological fact means to them. If the person tells you that what they believe is what the pastor or Sunday school teacher taught them . . . odds are that someone has been walking across their minds. Then ask them what they personally believe. If they cannot answer the question without quoting someone else . . . odds are that they are just echoing the words of others.
It is sort of like the analogy of sleeping with another person. I was told that when you hop into bed with another person that the two of you are not alone in the comfortable confines of the bed . . . there are all the other people that each person who has slept with prior to that moment in the bed too. That could be a really crowded bed for some folks. I think it is the same when it comes to our minds . . . who else is trampling around up there in our minds at any given moment. The question becomes, why are we letting others walk through our minds with dirty feet?
Now, I do not mind my father walking through my mind. For the most part, my father was a caring and loving man even though he had a difficult time saying it to others. He was a man who could be funny and fun to be with . . . but, there were times when his father echoed through him and it made life for everyone else difficult and sad. Yet, he was a good man doing the best that he could do with the cards that he was dealt. He father—my grandfather—was a hard man who lived a hard life. I imagine that his father—my great-grandfather—was just as hard of a man as he was. It has been said that our children pay for the sins of their grandparents. As much as I wanted to distance myself from my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather . . . they still came through despite my best efforts. Their voices echoed at my table . . . with my children . . . and, it was scary. They were trampling through my mind with their dirty feet. It was scary to be confronted by the past and all that it did to impact the person I am today.
So, what did I do?
I didn’t invite them back to the table . . . at least not the negative ones. I did not invite the hurtful words back . . . I did not invite the mean sarcasm back . . . the ridicule . . . the shame. I did not invite back the tone and the feelings back. I started to make a conscious choice to listen for the voices that were attempting to echo through me. And, I also began to make a conscious choice to not allow other voices to echo through my voice no matter where I was. I chose to speak and think for myself . . . to admit that maybe I did not know the answer, but that I was still searching . . . still looking. Chose to consciously make it a point not to force someone else’s opinion as my opinion onto someone else. I chose to recognize that there are those who walk through my mind with dirty feet, and that it was time to clean it all up.
Yeah, I know . . . easier said than done.
My father and a host of others still make their unexpected appearances in my life . . . still make their opinions known . . . still make me uncomfortable. Now, though, I am quicker to realize that their presence is in my midst. Quicker to know that it is not my voice speaking, but the voices of others. And, I am quicker to step back and claim my own voice . . . my own mind . . . and, admit to others as I apologize that I was not speaking for myself but for those who came before me. It is not easy . . . and, I fail quite often . . . but I am working hard at claiming my own voice.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash had a hit song a long, long time ago called Teach Your Children. It was a song asking people to consider how important it is to be that example of what you want your children to be once they grow up . . . in words and action. And, it is a reminder that no matter how hard any of us tries, we will still fail . . . that the journey is always before us to keep growing . . . and, that despite the worse, we still love those who came before us. We know that those before us loved us.
Though I don’t think that my adult children have recognized it yet, their parents speak and echo through them. From time to time I catch glimpses of the wife and I in our children . . . some good, some bad, and some that don’t make a bit of difference. They haven’t fallen as far from the tree as they imagine themselves to be. As Joni Mitchell wrote in Circles:
and the seasons, they go round and round
and the painted ponies go up and down
we're captive on the carousel of time
we can't return, we can only look
behind from where we came
and go round and round and round in the circle game
And, so it is with all of us as we travel through life.
The pattern can never be broken if we do not become conscious . . . conscious of the game . . .conscious of the circles we spin around in . . . conscious of the voices that echo through our voices . . . conscious of the people trampling through our minds. It is a choice we have to make . . . not an easy choice, but a choice none the less.
I loved my father. My children love me. Who will my grandchildren love in the end? Either way . . . it is scary. It is scary, but I am trying my darnedest to break the pattern . . . to silence the voices . . . and, to walk with clean feet through the minds of those I love.