What does it mean to be born a Jones, Smith, or whatever you happen to be? Apart from a medieval occupational derivation (like Kramer) what does your name represent, what should it represent?
To have a legacy attached to a surname has long been the privilege of the elite few. Inherited titles or the use of heraldry separated the common from the noble. Through much of history a surname secured a cultural inheritance beyond any material wealth.
Then, America gave us all a vast land where peoples from anywhere could begin anew without the trappings of the old. America exalted the individual allowing new lives to write their own stories.
The nineteenth century birthed the ideal of the self-made man on an unprecedented scale. It was the great Frederick Douglas who defined self-made men as those “who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.” The industrialization of the Victorian Era and the new opportunities it brought strained the last tether, of place, to its breaking point. The gusts of the modern age are rapidly blowing away any remaining footprints along the old routes.
An ability to choose your own identity is one of the hallmarks of Western Civilization and it has blossomed over time. Athenian, and later Roman, identity was culturally determined – though citizenship with the privileges of voting remained restricted. The ancient Hellene could live, work, and in the broadest sense “belong” to the community merely by adopting the culture of Athens. The same was true on a greater scale in the Roman world. To partake of a shared cultural canon was to self-subscribe to what we would in time come to think of as a nationality.
My children, adopted from a foreign land, are through choices made, as thoroughly American as anyone else. In fact, they, like the millions of Americans who preceded them, are in line with an inheritance that preempts race, creed, ethnicity, and so on. Together, Americans choose to carry a cultural baton that has passed from Athens to Rome and through the British Empire.
It is an inheritance to cherish, defend, and advance.
Yet as a nation is in many ways a family on the macro-level, have we too often forgotten to promote and defend the micro culture of our family? The letter of St. Paul to the Galatians speaks of being a son and “if a son, then an heir” (Gal 4:7).
Adapted to the secular, the question is an heir to what?
At the start of 2012 we have a sense of what it means to be a Kennedy, or a Kardashian. But what does it mean to be a Kramer (the 474th most common surname in America), or whatever you are? To bequeath not a legacy that saddles, but a set of values that instill both pride and inspiration to be used as reins, is a challenge.
Children from an early age can recognize corporate logos, but the subtler markings of the community ethos, both micro and macro, take more nurturing. The family name should complement the community (national cultural) inheritance without detracting from it.
There is no coat-of-arms (though why not?) but there should be a code, a behavioral tradition. Pope John Paul II adopted as his message and motto, “be not afraid,” and I am inclined to borrow that for my family. We teach our children to abide by the rules but we need to teach them to go further. We teach them to not lie, but we should also teach them to be truthful. We should teach them that loyalty goes beyond not betraying.
Professor Putnam’s Bowling Alone chronicled the decline of social organizations in America. That decline is more lamentable if we do not sustain the codes of duty, honor, industriousness, thrift, perseverance or whichever is most valued by you, into our lives.
Baseball’s Branch Rickey said of life that it is not about honor’s to take with you, but “the heritage you leave behind.” It is as true for our families as it is for our nation, and indeed, the latter is dependent on the former.