We spent yesterday driving up to Lake Hartwell, Georgia, to spend Thanksgiving with family. Along the way, we decided to stop in and see good friends who relocated to Georgia from Kentucky, whom we had not seen in years. They have found a truly beautiful spot to live here. The Georgia forests are alive with fall colors. We found ourselves gasping at the woods and creeks with each curve of the road or descent into a valley. It was a spectacular drive.
While we were visiting, one of their teenage daughters asked permission to go out with some of her friends from school to look at a display of Christmas lights. Her parents asked who she was going with, who else might be there, who was driving, and so on, before telling her she could go.
As she was walking out the door, her mother stopped her and said, “Remember who you are. Make good decisions.”
Remember who you are. Make good decisions.
That succinct delivery of wisdom stunned me. Her daughter received the words thoughtfully too, even though you knew she was accustomed to hearing it. I told our friends that I was going to make a note of those words for when Elise is old enough to venture into the world independently. That will become my mantra too.
As a young adult (heck, even as a mature adult), you get so caught up in being popular or trying to attract the attention of certain people that you tend to forget existential decisions often seem like small matters. That pushing through what seems like a porous boundary on one occasion – what might seem like a small or even reasonable gamble – can end up having life-altering consequences.
And beyond that, we now live in a society that is actively encouraging children to forsake the wisdom of millennia for cheap pleasures or a fleeting sense of belonging. How do you tell a child to be wise when every other social influence – even perceived authorities and institutions – are telling them to be stupid and make mistakes? How do you help your child navigate cultural influences that now have quite the track record for producing lost and miserable generations?
Our friends are Mormon. Although I am Roman Catholic, I have always respected the practical wisdom of Mormon parenting and felt a kinship to their virtue ethics.
After our conversation last night, I Googled the phrase “remember who you are” and learned that this is a common refrain in Mormon communities. The reason the words are so effective is they cut to the core of what it means to be a person of faith and live with dignity.
When someone tells you to remember who you are, you do not only think “I am a person from a good family, who was raised correctly, who genuinely wants to live a good and virtuous life and bring honor to my family name.” It goes well beyond filial piety (not that filial piety is a bad thing). Rather you think, “I am a child of God and everything I do is a demonstration of my relationship with God. What will doing this say about who I am as a person and what I value? Do the people around me care about what they are doing in the same way?”
To that end, I enjoyed reading this article on Mormon parenting:
We have been up in Logan this past week caring for Richard’s wonderful 91-year-old mother who sleeps about 20 hours a day and retains her wonderful, sweet personality, though for the last two or three years, she can’t remember who we are or who she is. Seasons revolve, roles reverse. She took care of me in that same house on Fifth North when I was a small boy, and now we take care of her in the same rooms.
I don’t want the forgetting part to happen to me, but I do want what she has had — another really good 20-plus years beyond 65. During that autumn of her life, she created lesson plans for a national chain of preschools, wrote a remarkable history of her Swedish ancestors, managed her investments, real estate and rental properties, dabbled in poetry and art, traveled around the country and around the world, and maintained great relationships with every one of her children and grandchildren. She’s in her deep winter now, and in her lucid moments wishing to go to a better place to be with my dad, who has been gone for 50 years.
There is a certain irony in the fact that she can’t remember anything, because I used to think I was the only boy with a mother who, every time I left the house, and I do mean every time, would yell at me, “Remember who you are!” I have since learned that it is quite a common parting shot among moms, including Teddy Roosevelt’s mother.
You guys know I love Teddy Roosevelt, so the idea that Roosevelt’s mother used to say this too is just fantastic. But anyway, back to the article:
“Remember who you are” means a lot of good things, like uphold the family name, make me proud, don’t do anything stupid, be careful, think, etc. But have you thought what it means in the eternal context? Remember who you really are — a child of God, a spiritual being having a mortal experience, a person who has taken upon himself the name of Christ, a priesthood holder, etc.
We want our children to remember those things not just so they will behave better, but so they will feel more self-worth, treat their body with respect, make good choices, be kind to others, protect themselves and their standards. We could give them continual lectures on all these points, but maybe the best way to say it really is “Remember who you are.”
It strikes me, however, that this approach only works on children if their lives up to that point have had some sort of spiritual information.
If you told a child who was raised by moral relativists to remember who they are, they would not respond with “I am a person who genuinely wants to lead a good life.” They would say, “I don’t know. Who am I?” This is one of the many reasons social institutions now fail to produce kids who are capable of flourishing at all, let alone flourishing through periods of adversity.
You can’t ground someone who has come to view their personhood as some plastic cultural context. Similarly, a person who does have a life with spiritual content cannot remember who they are without placing the small stuff within an eternal context.