Saturday, March 16, 2013

Family, History, and the Formation of the Heart

How is the heart formed?

By the heart I mean neither the physical organ nor the sentiments and affections but something deeper. In French the word for heart is cœur, which appears to be related to the English word core. The heart I’m speaking about is our psychological core, the center of our values and aspirations. It is by means of the heart that we perceive meaning. If we feel that something is worthy of our attention, valuable, meaningful or important it is by means of this metaphorical heart.

Inside this metaphor, it’s self-evident that different hearts function differently otherwise we would all have the same values and the same sense of what is meaningful, which doesn’t seem to be the case. What it is that we value or find meaningful is the result of a process of formation. How is one heart formed in one way while another is formed in some other way?

One day I noticed a stone beneath my neighbor’s rain gutter. I noticed how the stone had been smoothed by erosion caused by years of rainstorms. That stone had been formed by its “experience,” drop by drop, storm by storm.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, perhaps the heart is formed in an analogous way. At birth the stone has some rough shape but immediately the infant’s perceptions begin to form the stone, bit by bit, drop by drop. As we grow older the range of our choices grows and the choices we begin to make, and the responses to those choices, also form the heart. 

The scientific literature focuses also on such factors as genetics or birth-order. No doubt these play their role on the individual level, but do they account for the remarkable persistence of cultural traits at the level of the heart, at the level of the values that communities share?

In some schools of psychology the family system is seen as a crucible of the heart and thereby a conveyor of cultural values. My parent’s choices were a factor in the formation of the hearts of their children as their parents’ choices were for them. We discover a web of connected family systems that link back through a chain of history and causality. 
Carillon Sacré-Coeur Flag:
The Heart was a symbol with
immense spiritual power
in the traditional
French North American cultures

On the assumption that I know my grandparents and my grandparents knew theirs, the living memory of an extended family system reaches one’s great-great-grandparents. Generally, my great-great-grandparents were born in the 1820s. The collective memory of my extended family system stretches from 2013 to people whose hearts began to take shape in the 1820s. This is a rough estimate of a family’s effective historical horizon. 

Perhaps in all cultures but certainly in the Franco-American culture, stories play an enormous role in the process of forming the heart. Stories are vehicles for conveying who we are, what is important, and what ought to be done, especially when these stories are about our own family. The stories in my family that appeared as living memories did indeed extend to my grandparents’ grandparents.

For example, as a child I heard the tale of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Doucette and how he resisted with force and at the price of bodily harm what he regarded as an unjust economic and social system.

You can read Doucette’s story here and then I’ll ask what does a child learn from hearing a story like this not once but repeatedly? The story’s subtext makes clear that our people were the underdogs. “We” are not the ones with the power. “They” are. The rules are set by these others who have the power to establish systems in “their” interest and not necessarily in “ours.” A host of heart-forming messages are contained in such stories. 

I contend that even in families where specific stories have not come down from so distant a past, even if you have no idea who or what your grandparents’ grandparents were, these ancestors still haunt us. Their distantly echoing voices are still heard in the recesses of the heart through the messages we receive consciously or not from parents, grandparents, or others. The voices of more proximate generations are even louder and clearer.

We might borrow from engineering the notion of tolerances. Materials have certain tolerances to temperature and pressure, a degree of elasticity, etc. An aviation engineer is free to design an aircraft as he or she sees fit but only within the tolerances allowed by the materials as determined by the laws of physics. Similarly, as individuals we maintain substantial freedom of choice but only within the tolerances of the materials in our hearts.

History does not determine our choices but it does inform them. Many people choose to value what their forebears did not, but even these choices are not made out of context. Even if we recognize our tolerances and wish to transcend them, this transcendence is precisely of those tolerances. It is in response to them.

Here are some of the tolerances I’ve detected in my family system:

  • Authority comes from outside, from above rather than from within. We are not self-authorized but externally authorized.
  • Risk aversion: risk is seen from the standpoint of potential loss rather than potential gain.
  • One does not put oneself foward too much and one risks shame if one does. In a group situation it is important to feel out the context before making your contribution.

It requires little imagination to see how incompatible these assumptions may be with a competitive, aggressive, entrepreneurial, hyper-individualistic socio-economic system such as that of the USA. Although not all Franco-Americans share these tolerances, I would be very surprised if a sociological study did not find that such attitudes are shared disproportionately among this population as compared with some others.

Now that I’ve made them conscious I have won some freedom of choice with respect to these attitudes. But I cannot merely set them aside much less ignore them. Many raindrops through many storms formed the stony heart in the way in which it is formed. In a theoretically free society I have the theoretical freedom to transcend them. But to do so it is useful – some might say necessary – to understand the full weight of the history that informed them.

Our political or economic freedom, such as it is, does not mean that we are atoms floating in a void, only occasionally colliding in utterly context-free and wholly chosen transactions. We are not entirely self-determined but exist in context. Human beings exist within systems that include family, religious, and ideological systems as well as political and economic ones.

Choices are free within the tolerances allowed by a particular context within this network of overlapping systems. Our choices may be oriented toward changing one or another of these systems, but this is only possible by recognizing their character and scope.

If the past has no bearing on the formation of the heart then history is a frivolous discipline. It consists of stories that are perhaps entertaining but by no means important. If the experiences of our grandparents have no bearing on who we are now then I see little point in knowing about them at all.

If the experiences of generations past do not contribute to the formation of our hearts then what we call history is a mixed assortment of anecdotes about atomic individuals who made choices based on a self-created core that appears ex nihilo, unshared, and without the taint of context.

But this is no world that I live in. My heart was not formed to believe in such a world.


  1. great introspection!! AND so very true. we often come out of life being very different people than the child our parents knew. This sometime causes great bewilderment to our parents. But what we learn by listening , experimenting and just plain living carves us into individuals, not just clones of our parents. \Fran Wilcox

  2. What an excellent examination of what forms the basis of our most important inner self, our hearts. I could not agree more with your insights, simply spot on as we are definitely shaped by nurture as well as nature. One does not not exist in a vacuum void of one half of this critical combination.

    You might be interested to read this account of generational or historical trauma in Native Americans: Reading your post in the FCD group reminded me of this concept I'd learned of a few years ago. The link is a short synopsis of this reality people are just now beginning to understand. Google will give many more links on this topic. We are the sum of our ancestors, truly! ~Kathleen W

    1. Thank you Fran and Kathleen. Kathleen, I will check out the link you mentioned. I am a firm believer that trauma crosses generations. It’s easy for people (particularly males) to attempt to deflect it with an “oh please, just get over yourself!” attitude. But it doesn’t work. The Franco-American story is almost entirely unknown even to Franco-Americans, while the stories of some other groups are at least recognized. We are an invisible minority and this invisibility has a curious hypnotic effect on us. It makes it easy to deny or deflect the full weight of what past generations experienced in terms of its effects on us today. Thanks for the comments.