Thanksgiving is over for another year. Gratitude has certainly been on my mind, not because of Thanksgiving but because of my general need for grace. But I am one of those people who tend to find the holidays an ordeal, because of their emphasis on two of my more difficult subjects: family and food.
I have nothing to complain about; there was no big family drama this year. Things were quite low-key, and if there was tension it was simply the normal tension of things unsaid, or a pretense that pain was not present. But the holiday has left me with some odd echoes, and thoughts about the whole concept of our “families of origin,” as some refer to them.
There’s a scene in the Marvel film Thor: The Dark World that keeps playing in my head. (Spoilers for both Thor movies ahead.)
Loki, during the first movie, has been seeking the throne of Asgard by various underhanded means. At some point he finds out that he is not the natural son of his father King Odin: Loki is actually a Frost Giant, found and adopted as an infant by Odin. This revelation disturbs and embitters him, especially since he comes to believe it’s why Odin will always favor Thor over him. Later he tries to conquer Earth, and fails.
Near the beginning of the Dark World movie, he is brought before Odin in chains. Odin sentences him to life imprisonment, chiding him for lusting after the throne. “It is my birthright!” Loki says angrily.
“Your birthright was to DIE!” thunders a wrathful Odin, referring to Loki’s origin as a helpless infant abandoned after a battle.
And, behind Loki’s defiantly prideful stare, something deep in his eyes shatters.
Maybe it’s only me who sees it, but I don’t think so. I think others know that moment too–that moment of knowing our quest will never be fulfilled; the well is truly dry; that certain someone whose acceptance and love we have desperately sought is never going to meet our need.
Yes, that look in Loki’s eyes stayed with me. But the words stayed with me even more.
Your birthright was to die.
What is our birthright? What is mine? Looking at the families we sprang from, it can be a sobering thing to contemplate. Many of us came from families very different from the ideas touted by the media.
Should I conclude, from the circumstances of my birth, that my birthright is addiction? Mental illness? Domestic violence? Trauma? Prison? Bitterness, isolation, chronic pain?
Not trying to bad-mouth my family here, really. I’m just thinking about whether, and how much, it’s possible to decline our inheritance. I’ve already manifested several aspects of mine, whether through them being passed on or through my own mistakes. Is it possible to skip the rest?
Once, in a class about psychology and culture, we were told to stand in a line through the center of a large room. The teacher called out various circumstances and told us to take a step forward or backward if this circumstance was true for us.
If one or more of your parents went to college, take one step forward.
If your parents divorced, take one step back.
If either of your parents had substance abuse issues, take one step back.
If anyone in your family had mental health issues, take one step back.
If your family was ever homeless, take one step back.
If there was violence in your family, take one step back.
It went on and on; some questions seemed arbitrary while others brought an intense feeling of vulnerability as I took that step backward. When the exercise was done, we were spread out all over the room. Some of us ended up close to the line, some were well ahead, and a few, like me, stood well behind the pack.
The teacher framed this as an analogy for where a person’s “starting point” in life was. I don’t know if she was right to do so, or not. I do know that people can turn their handicaps into strengths, and some do. But do those strengths ever bring a person to where they might have been if they’d been dealt a different hand?
No. They don’t. We create a different life, perhaps even a deeper and more joyous life, from what we inherit. But the ship of what-could-have-been has sailed.
So, to what degree do I truly shape my own life? I’ve changed some things, I know–my daughter is growing up in a nonviolent household, for instance, and that’s huge. I’ve had the privilege of much more education than anyone in my extended family, and that’s huge too. I’m in recovery today, trying to live differently, and my spiritual work stands a chance of making me someone who uses her remaining years more wisely.
But when I feel overwhelmed or depressed, or I watch a relative go downhill with some of their issues, I seem to hear Odin’s voice from that scene, telling Loki that his only birthright was abandonment and death.
I need to fight that voice. It’s true that, as a human being, my birthright is death. But I believe that, as a human being, my birthright is also life. And where there is life, there is hope.