Evolution of a Self
by John Monroe
June 2, 2013
Several years ago I went out west on a business trip with my wife, Karen. As it turned out, we were staying near Bellingham, Washington, where a number of my cousins lived — cousins who I hadn’t seen since we were kids — perhaps 30 years. When I met my cousins, I was stunned by what I saw. When we were kids, we were a pretty motley bunch; I’m not sure anyone would have assumed we were related. But as adults, it was obvious. Whatever else was in the mix, almost all of us clearly were products of the Monroe gene pool — You could tell by the shape of the body and the face. Standing in the room with them, it was like standing in a hall of mirrors. This was a wake-up call for me.
It made me conscious of the fact that I was indeed a product of a particular gene pool — and that meant that I probably had inherited a lot more than a body type. I started to think about the various health issues that had surfaced in my family — and realized that they might surface in my life too. In some respects, this was not a welcome realization. I felt resentful; I felt vulnerable, as if so much of my health was out of my control. But I also recognized that this realization was a blessing of sorts. It helped me to see that, however vulnerable I might feel, at least I had an idea of what I was working with — I had a choice now about how to respond.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see that this is true in much of our lives. We don’t get to make our lives from scratch. Both physically and emotionally the patterns of our lives are set by others. Not just in terms of our appearance and health, but also our interests, attitudes and beliefs.
Today, I want to explore how we relate to our inheritance –And how we can work with that inheritance to create new patterns – And open our lives to new possibilities. I think we must begin this work by recognizing the powerful pull that the past has on our lives. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way:
“The moment of our conception in our mother’s womb is not the moment when we begin to exist. We have existed before — In our mother, in our father, in our ancestors. We have not come from nothing. We are a continuation. It’s like the stream of water on Earth is a continuation of the cloud in the sky. And the stream of water has not been born — it’s only a continuation of the cloud.”
We have not come from nothing, he says — we are a continuation. In very real ways, we carry on the legacy of those who have gone before us –They helped make us who we are.
The theory of evolution provides a useful framework for understanding ourselves this way. Just consider the popularity of junk food. On the one hand, junk food is very much a modern invention — An emblem of sorts for a civilization noted for its conspicuous consumption — A society where food is not just a necessity but also a leisure activity. But scientists now tell us that junk food has deep evolutionary roots. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, they had limited access to carbohydrates, fats and salts. When the opportunity presented itself, they would binge on it — Just as modern humans are prone to binge on potato chips, pizza and other fattening foods.
We have that tendency, because we ended up with a gene that gives us a taste for fat — a gene they’ve labeled CD36. The big difference is that we don’t run miles every day in search of that food — we just drive to the grocery store. So this gene is not always helpful.
In the same way, there are many areas of our lives in which we follow patterns set by others. For example, we follow patterns in how we relate to others –Patterns that we pick up from the environment in which we’re raised.
In humans, many social skills are not passed down through genes but instead are learned. We learn primarily by observing our primary caregivers – Watching how they interact both with ourselves and with other people. This learning often goes on when we are not aware of it.
But if you are like me, you can probably think of many times when you have caught yourself acting or talking like one of your parents or another role model.
I am conscious of that when I preach. My father is a retired minister. And every once a while I can hear my father’s voice in the way I phrase something.
We learn by observing. From an evolutionary perspective, this gives our species a real advantage. There is a lot that we might do by instinct. But instincts are not very flexible – so they aren’t always helpful with social dynamics. We are fortunate that we can learn from our caregivers how to navigate our social environment.
But there’s a downside to this. As we move into adulthood — if not before then — we often move into different social environments – And the patterns we learned growing up do not always work in our new context. Now don’t get me wrong – this is not a case of good or bad parenting — This is not about how we pass on our skills or our hang-ups to our children. Instead, it’s about acknowledging that as our lives change, our patterns need to change. We need to learn new things.
In short, we need to adapt. However well we were raised, we are bound to find ourselves in situations where our familiar patterns, our learned behaviors, do not serve as well as they once did. We often first encounter this when we leave home and go to school or to work and need to learn new social skills and new routines. And we encounter it when we become involved in a long-term relationship –And discover that the way that we had learned to communicate doesn’t exactly mesh with what our partner had learned.
Those are life milestones in which adaptation is required. If we don’t adapt in those situations, the consequences are fairly clear – we might lose our jobs or struggle in our relationships. The same is true with other milestone events — Whether it’s becoming a parent, getting divorced, retiring, or dealing with health challenges.Again, those situations push us to adapt.
Donald Miller addressed this in the reading we heard earlier:
“Every person has to leave, has to change like seasons; they have to or they die,” he said.
But I believe that adaptation also can be a spiritual practice — One that can help us grow throughout our lives. It can be a matter of choice, not just necessity.
By reflecting on our lives – by reflecting on the legacy that we have inherited –And the paths that we have walked –We can find ways to better adapt ourselves to the demands of our lives – and to our dreams for the future.
What I’m talking about is what you might call conscious evolution. Again, the concept of biological evolution is very helpful here. At times in our lives, it’s tempting to think about starting over — about rewriting our lives.
But when it comes to the stories of our lives – just as when it comes to biology — the truth is that we don’t really get to start from scratch. We are capable of making big changes — as someone making a dramatic career change at midlife, I can testify to that. But wherever we go — however big a change we make — we carry our life stories with us. And because we were shaped so much by other people, we carry their life stories too.
This is the stuff of life. We can’t leave it behind. What we can do, though, is reflect on our life stories – Reflect on what we have learned and experienced — and reflect on how that connects with the direction of our lives now:
How is it that I want to grow? In what way has my life story not prepared me for where I am now? Or for where I want to go from here? What is holding me back? And what is pushing me on?
It is not easy to reflect in this way. The process sometimes requires us to confront difficult aspects of our lives – memories or feelings that we might rather avoid –But we must confront them — come to terms with them — and accept them as our own. Because only then can we truly learn from our experiences. Buddhist teacher Tara Brach emphasizes the need to feel compassion for ourselves when going through this process.
She talks about the value of radical acceptance, or genuine acceptance. As she sees it, genuine acceptance has two parts: seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion. “The two parts of genuine acceptance,” she writes, “are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.”
No, we cannot start our lives from scratch. But what we can do is take the stuff of our life and create new meaning –Building on our lives so far — yet creating new possibilities. This is something that we might do at any point in our lives.
I saw this for myself once, although I was not aware of it at the time. This was about ten years ago. My maternal grandfather, who lived in Washington state, was dying of congestive heart failure. My wife and I decided to fly out to see him while he was still living, rather than flying out to attend his funeral. Shortly after we arrived, my grandfather began giving us a tour of his small house.
It was a house he had lived in as long as I could remember — But I had never seen it as I saw it that day. As we walked around the house, he would stop us every few steps and show us a picture or some object and explain what we were looking at. Most of the pictures were of relatives I had never heard of. But he told us their stories — and how they had shaped his life –And how they had shaped my own life, in a roundabout way.
And he showed us the tools of his trade, which was logging. Each tool had a story behind it, a story of working in the mountains of Washington and Oregon. When we left he gave us a small gift — a jar of ash from Mount Saint Helens, where he had worked for many years.
But the real gift of that day — the one that I will always treasure — was hearing him tell the story of his life –Watching him weave together the different strands — the loves and losses — the sorrows and joys –Weaving it together until it took on a meaning that had never been apparent before – creating a tapestry of his life and offering it to us as his gift.
He would die two weeks later.
Weaving — that is the metaphor Jan Richardson uses. Jan — a writer, artist and Methodist minister — talks about weaving and unweaving the stories of our lives. She writes:
“I find myself looking at the threads of my life — Wondering if there are some strands that I might loosen and tug apart so that I can view them from a different perspective — See what might be underneath them — Invite the Spirit to move among them and help me see them anew. At this point in my story, might there be another way to weave them, a new design that wants to emerge?”
Richardson frames this process in terms of being moved by the Spirit. But however we want to frame it, it is this process of reflecting on our lives — On all that we have inherited and all that we have learned — that opens the door to adaptation.
No, we can’t start from scratch — But what we can do is take the strands of our lives and begin developing new patterns. And in the process we can create opportunities for new growth…
And move our lives in new directions. This is the gift of life: We can evolve May it be so. Amen.