The Importance of Connecting with Our Culture

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There is a vital part of the psyche that could be referred to as "the mything link." Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, Jean Huston, Carl Jung, and many other scholars have taught us that within each of us? deep in our bones? lives not only our story, but also the story of our ancestors. In ones younger years it is usually "remembered" through the fairy tales and myths read to us by our parents and grandparents. For example: the Russian grandmother reads the fairy tale of Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanuska to her granddaughter, who is an American born child living in Denver, Colorado, probably never to see Russia. But the grandmother knows it is her granddaughter's "origin"? her "blood."

In the early nineties, I received a grant to tell myths and stories in the schools of the San Luis Valley of Colorado, and to have the children then experience these tales by acting them out using masks and music in theater productions. If we performed "The Pirate who Tried to Capture the Moon," which is a great story, it would capture the audience as well. I decided to introduce tales of local color, so I went to the hills to find the elders who lived there, and I got stories from these old wise ones who were the same nationality as the majority of the children living in the valley. When I told these stories, the children were more than captured? they were enchanted.

In the San Luis Valley, most of the Hispanic children know the story of "La Llorona"? the weeping woman who is grieving for her lost children. But few had heard "The Rugged Little Oxen," a fourth century Spanish fairy tale recounted to me by a 98-year-old woman from Spain. As I told this story, the children appeared to be waiting expectantly for the next event to happen, and some said they knew what that event would be.

As a response to this story, an adult might say, "I never heard that fairy tale, but it is hauntingly familiar." To the same story, a child might respond this way: "I already knew that story, and no one told me either."

"How did you know it then?" you might ask. "Maybe your Grandpa told you a long time ago and you just forgot."

"Nope. Grandpa didn't tell me. I just knew it already."

If you ask, "Do you remember it from a dream?" you're more likely to get a positive response. When cultural memories are stirred up, they often have a dream-like quality ? a heavenly mystery.

It is said that your culture, the ancient story, the archetypes of your ancestry, are "in your bones." Certainly, I have witnessed this in telling stories to children (and adults) in my counseling practice and in the schools. It is wonderful when they recognize and can claim the story. "I'm Spanish and that's a Spanish fairy tale. My great-grandmother lived in Spain, and her mother and her mother and her mother. One day I will go there." It is sad when they say, "We aren't supposed to tell anyone that we are Spanish," or "Irish? What's an Irish? I'm white."

Our cultural heritage is our birth right, and if we are constantly reminded how terrible that culture is, this is not just a deprivation but almost always a shaming experience? a deep, primitive shame that is very difficult to heal. For example, imagine that you are a Romanian orphan and have only the memory of the tragic and horrible way you were treated in the orphanage. You are told that the leader of your country was the one who said you were to be there, and you believe that your mother let that happen. You imagine that your own mother agreed to the separation from her and the rest of your family, your language, your country ? how would you feel? Every time anyone referred to Romania, your country of origin, they told the whole story of how bad your mother country was to you. What do you think your reaction would be? An inexplicable shame, so dark and raw that you would want to deny your roots in any honorable way.

But what if we found some of the stories, the folk art, and the music of the cultures of our adopted children? What if we shared with them these stories, played the music, the songs, and presented these treasures with pride and inspiration? What if they were able to find something fine and positive beyond the walls of the orphanage, a gift hidden in their own culture, like a beautiful dream, long forgotten and clouded over by the nightmare? Those stories could be something for the child to claim, with pride, as part of their own unique self.

There is a Greek myth about the god Haphaestus, born to the great King Zeus and Queen Hera on Mount Olympus where the beautiful, brilliant, perfect gods and goddesses dwelled. Haphaestus though, was born a dwarf with a humped back and his feet were backwards. As a "malformed" babe, he was soon cast off, some say by his mother, some, his father, and some say both parents agreed, because of his imperfections. He fell a long way off that great mountain until he plunged into the sea. There he was rescued by two beautiful sea nymph goddesses who took him to their secret island. There they cared for him, rubbing his twisted feet in oil, and bathing his poor broken back. They found him perfect and precious to them and cared for him with great affection.

As Haphaestus grew, the nymph goddesses taught him to be creative. He learned how to make little animals from clay, how to build fires and bake the clay to stone. He became a student of many arts and explored the mysteries of the ancients. As a grown man, he became a great sculptor. He made Achilles shield, described in the Odyssey. He made Athena's chariot, and her beautiful jewelry. After his return to Olympus, he was sometimes misunderstood or hurt by the gods, especially by the goddesses with whom he was in love. But he could take his pain to his smithy, and there he would turn it into a sculpture, into great works of art. That is how Haphaestus healed himself.

This myth of the orphan Haphaestus is a map. It gives direction. Pain can be transformed into something we carry in our deeper selves, our art. That art is often the art of our culture. It is not to say that we can only learn from our inherited talents, but they will evolve most naturally. This is our link to our culture, a link that becomes especially important. When we experience abuse and adversity, war, starvation, loss of family, and other terrors, we can hope to find relief in the purest form that culture carries. Art, whether folk art, writing, dance, weaving, music, ritual, or any creative endeavor can magically connect our children with their origin in a very positive way. With this we "recreate" the original gift. We rekindle the fire of their deepest connection, so they can carry their unique culture to their family and friends, and some day to their own children.

Editor's note: In future columns Paula Brooke will feature stories and myths from foreign lands. This will allow adopting families not only to learn about their adopted child's culture of origin, but also discover ways of applying that knowledge to the healing process that must take place in any family which has adopted a child from another culture. In addition to stories and myths, Paula will provide examples of creative play and craft activities, how-to guides, and references.

Credits: Paula Brooke

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