My grandfather Emmett insisted he was descended from Scottish royalty.
He would tell the story of how his cousin was contacted by someone looking for a certain relative who was supposed to inherit a castle. That relative (he was always vague on details) had disappeared after immigrating to America, and so the cousin was in line for the inheritance. Property taxes were owed. The cousin had no money. Grandpa thought he would be eligible for the inheritance, but he had no money either. Besides, he had no idea who to contact.
And so he passed the story on to me, along with the expectation that one day I could look into it. The story was, I suppose, a gift from a man whose dreams had been frustrated by life’s circumstances and who wanted to pass on some kind of treasure to his grandson. In the meantime, he gave me a jackknife.
There is a theme running through many fairy tales of a boy or girl who discovers that they are a prince or princess. Their humble surroundings are an illusion. They sense within themselves a capacity for greatness. The boy discovers he can kill a giant. The girl can detect a pea beneath a pile of mattresses.
Emerson writes, “All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself.” The feeling that we are greater than our circumstances is pandemic in human beings.
A couple years ago I subscribed to an online genealogy site and began tracing my family’s ancestry. As a result, I became acquainted with some distant relatives. We occasionally share photos and stories with one another. When we come across something notable—a connection to some historical figure, the location of an obscure gravesite, a reliable death record filling in a missing link—we send celebratory messages as if finding a lost treasure.
The largest genealogy site is Ancestry.com. They claim to have over 3 million members with access to 10 billion historical records. They also sell DNA kits to test for geographic and racial origins. MIT Technology Review reported in 2018 that over 12 million Americans had undergone genetic genealogy tests.
We in America are more race conscious than we have been for many years. Gone are the days when we hoped for a “color-blind” society. Now our goal—on both the political left and the right—seems to be entrenchment into subsets of humanity, as if our deepest, most substantial identity resides in difference rather than commonality.
But validation of who we are deep down comes neither from history nor race. Nor does it come from the many distinctions of social class, religion, ethnicity, sex, or gender. Our deepest validation comes from a different kind of worth, from a profound commonality that lies beyond our differences.
Most religious traditions acknowledge this commonality through stories of descent from divinity. It is no small thing to be capable of reason and insight, sorrow, regret, joy, and hope; to be capable of kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, generosity, and forgiveness. Most of all, we share the capacity for love, a capacity that finds fullest expression in the practice of hospitality toward strangers.
The capacity for love is the deepest measure of our shared inheritance. When we forget it, when we try to locate our true self in differences alone, we deny that part ourselves which makes us most human. We also undermine the dream of democracy, which rests in the vision of a world in which differences augment our humanity rather than constitute it.
Last week I took a pilgrimage to my hometown. I drove to the houses where my grandparents had lived, then I went to Lakeside Cemetery where they are buried. It was a beautiful summer day, the kind of day I remember vividly, when I would ride my bicycle to visit them, help them with their garden, then sit at the kitchen table and listen to their stories.
I could not find their graves. It is a small cemetery. I walked through it again and again. I had been there before. I thought I knew just where they were buried. I could not find them.
It is no matter. Life is found among the living, and there is treasure to be found in every person we meet.
July 28, 2019