We are to a large extent what our parents make of us. While of course we are all magnificently unique beings, and have varying degrees of agency in terms of how we live our lives, it is hard to deny the effect that our upbringing has on the eventualities of our beliefs and ultimately our lives. I came across the child pictured above at a festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal in the summer of 2016, his
mother grasping him by both shoulders from a crowd and shuttling him sideways to stand in front of my camera. As I look at this image, I am struck by how much a product of his environment this boy is and quite likely will become. The beads, the garments, the hat, the hands clasped in prayer, all are remarkably different than would be present if this child were born in another part of the world, or perhaps simply to another family across the town.
It takes immense energy to escape the kinetic bounds of the culture of our birth. The greatest determinants of our religious beliefs, for example, are where we are born and the religious practices of our families. People may believe that they are living the one true path to their ultimate salvation, but in all likelihood that path is simply the one upon which someone has grasped both their shoulders and placed them. In terms of profession, in places such as India and Nepal where there are strong caste systems, the family name you are born with is sometimes the primary indicator of the work that you do. Even if you aren’t born in a formal caste system, the greatest determinant of whether you will go to a university is whether or not your parents attended one. Parental experiences and choices all too often lead to their reappearance in the lives of their progeny.
I am blessedly an amalgam, decending from people who came from different countries, cultures, professions and religions. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, Catholics from Ireland and Germany; photographers, artists, musicians, independent business people. Even my parents migrated within their own lives, with my mother veering from small town midwest America to tour as a singer with jazz bands, live and perform in NYC and eventually settle in Chicago. My father started in Chicago but eventually chose to live in diverse places such as a rain forest in Puerto Rico, the Himalayas, a 35′ sailing ketch for many years, an island in the Caribbean, and more recently in more remote Northern Thailand. Coming from parents and grandparents with these diverse backgrounds and experiences, and who were courageous enough to follow their own unique callings, has made the kinetic constraints of my origins less amplified.
Those who experience the benefit of living in multiple places and being exposed to diverse people and beliefs eventually come to understand that the insularity which comes from a lack of such exposure can breed bigotry, unhealthy nationalism, and closed-mindedness. If we are lucky, we wake up one day to discover that what we believe and who we have become have been startlingly determined by forces other than our own free will. From there, gradually, trip by trip, place by place, interaction by interaction, question by question, conversation by conversation, book by book, experience by experience, we break free of the beads of our culture, the garments of our parents, the hats of our community, the God toward which our hands have been clasped in prayer, all of which we now realize that we are blissfully free to discover and choose, or not choose, for ourselves.