Thursday, March 22, 2012

Debtors to History

What makes me who I am?

I've been wrestling with that question over the past few years.

As I approach the age at which my father died, and I've had a growing urge to know my history, the story before my story began. I want to dig deep, to unearth the roots of my family tree like a curious scientist seeking an elemental glimpse at what made its fruit grow.

When I was in Mongolia last year, I had a chat with U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Addleton about his memoir. I had ample time to read it on a 30-hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. As I flipped the pages, I was struck by how deeply he understood his family history and how he  relayed vivid stories of events that happened before he was born.

The key to getting such detail, he said, was humility - a deep respect for how the lives of his forebears laid the path for his own and how his experiences seemed to afford him advantages for each new stage. His upbringing in Pakistan gave him an international outlook. The zeal of his missionary parents solidified a strong sense of faith. His journalism degree helped him communicate better than many of his peers. He was, in his own words, a debtor to history, barely able to take any credit for his own accomplishments.

I can see the same pattern in my life. As much as our American mindset tells us that we are masters of our own destiny, and though our faith reminds us of the truth that we were customized in our mother's womb, we can't really understand ourselves if we don't tip our hats to what happened before and beyond us.

Maybe this is real to me because my father's absence has shaped my journey probably as much as his presence would have. In a strange way, I've been guided by lacking his guidance. I have searched for my Father because my father wasn't there. I've been driven to understand manhood because there was always a missing piece in mine. Some call this fate. I call it grace and providence.

In some Asian cultures a person's role in the family defines his identity. There's a piece of universal truth to this. We're all letters on the pages of a great novel, forming words and sentences that make a story when bound together. Without context we're nothing. With an author we're captivating.

It can be maddening not knowing what's on the next page, but I take comfort in being connected to the plot. My debt to history is one I'm glad to leave unpaid.