One distorted idea that creeps into my thinking from time to time is that who I am is my past, my family of origin, the things that have happened to me.
My childhood was rather ordinary, I think. Daddy was a preacher who always had to have a full time job on the side to support us. Mama stayed home with us kids – myself, the oldest; Jonathan, barely shy of two years younger; and then Joel, who came along the summer before I turned nine.
There were times (most of them, actually) when money was tight, but we never experienced crushing poverty. My parents made their fair share of mistakes raising my brothers and me, but they were most likely honestly doing the best they knew how. We had certain relatives (again, most of them) that we didn’t associate with except at large all-family gatherings, for reasons that were never explained to me, but as I’ve grown older I’ve learned that the secrets kept from me were for the most part quite tame.
I think it’s precisely because my childhood was so non-dramatic that it took me so long to recognize some of the lingering unhealthy ideas I picked up through those years. I didn’t suffer any deep tragic losses; I didn’t endure any great deprivation of physical necessities. It was ingrained in me that I was, in fact, much more fortunate than those poor starving heathen children in foreign lands, and that my fears and unhappiness were unfounded and trivial.
The writer who has most helped me to acknowledge the shadows of my past, to see how they have shaped me without allowing them to define me, is Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of more than thirty books, including four autobiographical volumes. Telling Secrets deals most directly with this issue.
These words have given me the courage over the past couple of years to look back and examine certain memories I had shoved into the dark cubbyholes of my mind, to realize how they were affecting me even after all this time, and to begin working through the feelings they stirred in me, finding what hidden insights they offered.