Dirk Knemeyer

Cross-generational understanding

Originally published on the Facio blog

According to my mother, her father woke up every day and said “Today is going to be a great day!” That is a wonderful ideal to aspire to, especially being someone who wakes up and says, “I’m so tired,” or “I can’t believe I have xxx on my calendar today,” or some other melancholic expression about my own emerging day. On the other hand, while I am up happily working thru my creative endeavors at 2am, in the same situation he would have long since gone to bed. Culturally his approach to and taking on of the day is certainly more attractive than mine, but what I can’t figure out is whether or not it is ultimately better. Regardless of the qualitative reality of our respective states, my bigger question is: what made me so different, and how can I be more like him?

The problem with this question is twofold: first, the data I have on my grandfather’s life is meager, at best. I’ve never gotten to speak with much less interview people he worked with. He was a lawyer, politician, farmer, entrepreneur and oil painter. The only stories I have about him come from his children – who, like all of us, see the past in uncertain gossamer with unrealized psychic agendas – and the many stories he told me when we spent time together in my early years. These long periods together and many far-flung stories he told were less about the essential person he was and more about vignettes from his life he thought I might find entertaining, or which he was struggling to preserve in the silicon of my mind.

The second issue is understanding what leads us to be who we are, in the way we are. The potential divinations of the self fall across a vast chasm of a continuum, ranging from an inherently deterministic perspective giving limited weight to “nurture” and general life forces, to another extreme where every small moment of our lives smoothed or chipped us in a way to very complexly shaped us into what and who we are. The reality is likely in the middle somewhere, but within the vastness of these extremes are so many possible ways to look at a question that lacks the proper historical data to truly assess in any event.

All of these barriers notwithstanding, I want to figure out if it is realistic for me to transform into someone who gets out of bed announcing “Today is going to be a great day!” Does the strange brew of my nature and nurture allow for it? What enabled him to frame his days in such an optimistic way? I can piece together what little I know like any armchair behavioural psychologist. But ultimately it is a vain thought exercise. Why did my father increasingly frown as he got older, and why do I feel that same frown pulling down the corners of my own mouth? Why did my predecessors live and die happily on a farm in Germany for many hundreds of years, followed by the next four – including myself – die in places far-flung from where they were born and raised?

Since the path to understanding these things is a mirage, the fact I aspire to discover them can certainly be dismissed as a bit of folly. But perhaps, just maybe, the data we collect over the next many generations enables my distant progeny to look back and understand their operating dynamics in ways that unlock more range in and control of their own lives.

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