Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Intentional Culture - Kaleidoscope

This is a softer side of a previous post.

Human beings do not just happen to pass on the cultural values they find important, they are driven to do so. We pass on much of which we are barely aware, including some values we might prefer not to were we really thinking about it. Bidden or unbidden, the drive to pass on culture is present.

There is pain that comes from children who will not accept your culture, and a different pain when they can not adopt it. Stepparents go through this, especially when they raise children from a young age. Grandparents, I think, observe precious mind-heirlooms not passed on. Parents who have children with disabilities that interfere with a particular activity see it as well. They gradually find that important items, such as love of reading or music, simply have no answer in the child. Dads who are devoted to fishing find themselves with children who find it not the least interesting. Or conversely, dads who find nothing remotely interesting about fishing find themselves with children who are fascinated by it. A decade of creative attempts to find some way of adapting or repackaging camping, or participant sports, or working on cars comes up empty.

We expect a certain amount of this, even with biological children. A single departure from what parents prefer is absorbable. Part of the fascination of watching children develop, in fact, is the kaleidoscope effect of seeing them do something entirely different with the bits of colored glass and pebbles we have bequeathed to them. Mom contributes some bits, Dad contributes some, circumstances some, and we try to yank out the unattractive parts before turning the tube and mirrors of the world over to the child for good. Unidentified bits, if they are not too many, add to the fascination.

But what if when you look in the tube you see little that you recognise? (Or perhaps, in the case of divorced parents, items all-too-reminiscent of the other.) Let me assure you, as one who has three times now embraced as son a child whose colored bits are almost completely unfamiliar, that the dislocation and distance strike to the heart. Not only are there damaged bits that must be fixed or removed, there are perfectly good bits we simply don’t find attractive. I wanted to pass on my culture. I am passing on someone else’s culture, and that’s my job. My culture has these lovely blue-green oblongs, my wife’s a magenta triangle that go together quite nicely. We chose a watery blue disc to lessen the dark feel. These things in the kaleidoscope of culture just look right. Lots of our friends have similar blue discs. I think the oblongs may have been in the family for years.

We tried to install them in the adopted children, but some wouldn’t stick, while other bits of glass wouldn’t leave.

I write this in metaphoric, non-human terms to get distance from the sadness of it. One can be separated from family members by anger or history, but with teenage adoption the chasm is merely difference. They want to do things that are beyond variations of the themes of what you offered them, but entirely different music, on different instruments.

There’s a plus side and special joy to it all, of course. You get to remove ugliness, or try your hand at repairing bits you have no experience with. You can even, if you are lucky, install parts of your culture in places it would never have otherwise come. Combinations unknown in human history appear before you. All intriguing, fascinating, and quite an honor. Yet the dislocation keeps popping up at odd moments.

When you have children – biological, adopted, borrowed – you come to some understanding of what can be changed and what can’t. Even in the intense, intentional culture of two parents and two children, you come up against bits of colored glass with no identifiable origin, and other bits that just don’t install. More commonly and excitingly, familiar bits fall into new patterns as your child turns the tube.

Much of the culture war in America owes more to this rejection of mere difference than either side is willing to admit. We look into the kaleidoscope and think that’s just wrong. Look, none of us likes self-examination all that much, to see if our approvals and disapprovals in that war are based on a mere preference for blue over green. But it’s simply necessary. My experience in reading and conversation is that (still-)married people do this a little better. Those with a child at least half-grown better still, and those who have raised more than two children beyond the age of eight much, much better, having come up against the wall of children being unexplainably different. (Terri, though technically not qualifying here, provides a nice illustration by referring to her children as the Intuitive and the Rationalist.) I don’t have enough contacts with others who have adopted to venture a guess whether that provides one step further. But my own experience is that I am quite different after the experience.

One more argument that only people who have raised (as in continuously) two children beyond the age of eight should be allowed to vote.

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