Over the last few days I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘inheritance’.
In part this turn of thought has been spurred on by reflections on the COP26 event in Glasgow. The idea that we are passing on a world which is in such a perilous state is one that has been much mentioned in the last few days. As someone with a young child I am painfully aware of the reality that it is not a distant ‘future generation’ that will have to deal with the climate challenges we are failing to meet but a generation which is close and immediate to my heart. The inheritance of those who follow us will be determined greatly by the degree to which we are brave enough to act.
Inheritance is an intriguing concept. As the middle child of a large crofting family, I have never entertained the notion that I would be bestowed with an abundant inheritance and yet at the same time have been throughout my life aware of the sense that inheritance plays a critical role in crofting communities. Inheriting the land, passing on the place and space your forbears have worked and toiled over, where their memories are dug into the peat and soil around you, is and was an intrinsic part of Hebridean culture. Yet it was never, at least for me, about possessiveness and ownership which suggested a domination over and sublimation of the natural world, but rather a sense of passing on the custodianship and care for a place, playing your part in the flow of generations past and to come. The land is inside you and possesses you in a way you can never possess it. I do sometimes think that were such a philosophy of trusteeship and guardianship to become more prevalent that some of the environmental misuse and abuse we have witnessed on our TV screens from around the world in the last week would not have been so commonplace. Our humanity is a passing tenant of the earth we walk.
But there are other concepts and meanings to inheritance which have also played out in my mind this last week. For as we look to the coming week the thoughts of what we remember and remembrance come close into focus.
Inheritance is a key concept in our understanding of remembrance. The act of remembering is a powerful collective tool to enable us to identify ourselves as communities, as nations and as individuals.
We inherit memories from our past – from family and friends – some details are omitted or forgotten, sometimes in order to cope with the hurt or to excuse the guilt; some memories are lost and through oral history they are put back in the place of the heart.
We inherit the story we tell one another; we remember that which has been passed down to us. But there are some truths and experiences lost in the collective acts of memory and remembrance. So, it has always been necessary to give as much value to the individual story as it has been to the collective remembrance.
But this coming week it is important that we not only spend time thinking of our own story but of the collective story of suffering and pain that has shaped our society and community. We are who we are today because of the people whose sacrifice and courage in the face of evil has given us the inheritance of peace. But we are also a people who every day are required to do the work of being in relationship with others in order to make sure the atrocities and horrors of the past are never repeated.
This coming Remembrance Day I will like others seek to spend time thinking of those who I knew and know who stood out against evil and called hope to come; I will walk with my community in its acts of dedication determined that history’s pain will not become tomorrow’s reality, but this year especially I will reflect on the nature of the inheritance I and others will pass on as we remember. It will be a cruel insult to the loss of countless generations were we not to act with determination in a battle against the apathy of those silent as our earth screams for restoration.
What will our children inherit from us in their acts of remembrance? Will they inherit the earth as something wonderful, rich and vibrant or a soil of hurt and tears? Will they inherit a determination to be better one with the other or a casual loss of courage? Will the stories of unity and strength in solidarity from the battles of the past enable us to act together to gain victory for our planet in the future?
‘Inheritance’ is one of the most famous poems written by the contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland and it describes the theme of inheritance and what is passed on to new generations. Like the poet I wonder especially in this week of remembrance what it is that we will pass on; will it be a world rescued from suffering and evil in the 20th century only to be laid waste by the greed of later generations? Will it be a world where the heroic humanity of countless millions stood and continues to stand against hatred, discrimination, and a diminution of human rights? Will it be a world in which the past will be remembered not as an escape for dreamers but as the teacher of a better tomorrow?
I have been wondering
what I have to leave behind, to give my daughters.
No good offering the view
between here and Three Rock Mountain,
the blueness in the hours before rain, the long haze afterwards.
The ground I stood on was never really mine. It might not ever be theirs.
And gifts that were passed through generations—
silver and the fluid light left after silk—were never given here.
This is an island of waters, inland distances,
with a history of want and women who struggled
to make the nothing which was all they had
into something they could leave behind.
I learned so little from them: the lace bobbin with its braided mesh,
its oat-straw pillow and the wheat-colored shawl
knitted in one season
to imitate another
are all crafts I never had
and can never hand on. But then again there was a night
I stayed awake, alert and afraid, with my first child
who turned and turned; sick, fretful.
When dawn came I held my hand over the absence of fever,
over skin which had stopped burning, as if I knew the secrets
of health and air, as if I understood them
and listened to the silence
and thought, I must have learned that somewhere.