19th International Conference
American Adoption Congress
3 - 5 April 1997
3 - 5 April 1997
Destiny, Chance and The Adopted
Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan
The name of this workshop is Destiny, Chance and the Adopted. My name is Tom Brosnan. I am an adopted person. i have searched for my birthmother and had met her 12 years ago last Friday. Although my mother died some three and a half years ago, I remain in contact with my six other half-siblings. I have also met my father, though he has denied paternity. I am anxious to find out more about him and his family and would welcome help from anyone who might have contacts in or around Toronto. I am also a Roman Catholic priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn and presently live and work with Korean Catholics in Flushing, Queens. I have been a member of the AAC for a number of years and do what I can to further the cause to open sealed records. I am not a psychologist or "adoption expert" and present here only my own perspective on the effects adoption has had in my life.
I have chosen the title Destiny, Chance and the Adopted as a way of entering into a conversation about those universal and ageless questions: Why am I here? and What is the meaning of life in general, and this life in particular? After my presentation I hope you might feel free to offer your perspectives on what I will have said.
These questions are, after all, universal. They could be considered the hallmark of consciousness -- that which makes us human. They spark the desire for knowledge of the truth. Aquinas tell us that "man desires two things above all. In the first place he wants to know the truth, which is peculiar to him; secondly, he wants to continue to exist, which is common to all things." In Aquinas' philosophy knowledge is the basis of love; and truth and love are attributes of divinity.
Adoptees, of course, have no monopoly on such questions; indeed many adoptees do their best to avoid hearing them, let alone asking them. I wonder if we might conclude then that the adopted who adamantly refuse to search, or at least wonder about their origins, are not, in some sense, unconscious? Or those that prohibit such a quest towards consciousness by whatever means are not in essence practicing a form of slavery? But that's the stuff of another workshop.
These are questions that can be asked in many different ways. By our choices and actions we ask these questions everyday, even though we may never formulate them thematically and verbalize them with philosophical acumen. Remember the movie Moonstruck when Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), the middle-aged father who has had been having an affair for years, is finally confronted by his wife (Olympia Dukakis). "Why do men have to have affairs?" she yells at her tired husband. "Because they're afraid of death," Cosmo answers. The answer stops here in her tracks: 'Of course," she says, "of course." Each of us, by our choices, by our actions, by our diversions, by our mistakes, by our indiscretions by our adamantly refusing to ask -- ask all the same.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn I never realized I was asking these questions -- but I was. I asked them everytime I watched Superman and wondered if he wondered about his parents on some far away planet. Or, when I felt jealous of patty Duke everytime she'd dance in front of the mirror to her reflection which turned out to be her identical cousin -- how I wished for some kind of genetic, biological reflection too. How I felt a twinge of something everytime my mother would try to situate a family event in history -- she would do this using me as the time frame. "Oh," she'd say we didn't get that Chevy until you arrived." Or, your father and I went to Florida once, a few years before you came along." It wasn't until relatively recently that I realized I can never remember my mother referring to me as having been born; it was always my arrival or my coming along. After I found my birthmother I told my parents, and I have noticed in the years since that my mother more and more uses the word born, and very recently has begun to refer to my adoption. These questions are important, and asking them is practicing the truth.
Some more questions: How did I come to be born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn when my mother was living in Baltimore and her family in Philadelphia? How did my father, who emigrated from eastern Europe and made his home in Canada, happen to meet my mother? Was their union written in the stars, or as they say, always meant to be? Were my parents, as parents, present in the mind of God from all eternity so that my birth was not a mistake, but an inevitable happening? And, if so, how can religion reconcile this divine plan with what it judges to be illicit union and illegitimate birth? Or am I simply the result of chance, the result maybe of an imperfect condom, or a moment's passion, perhaps -- conceived even in rage, an accident of time and space -- not unlike the theories of materialistic evolution based on radical contingency.
Ultimately I think all our questions focus on whether or not we feel we belong. How do we feel we belong to the cosmos, to our families, to ourselves? We want to feel that we belong. Yet, we only ask these questions because there is a sneaking suspicion somewhere in the back of our minds that we do not belong. I think death -- the seeming alienation from consciousness itself -- is the culprit here. Fear of annihilation is powerful evidence for us to conclude that we do not belong. I remember a few years ago beginning to cry at a movie that was not especially moving, at least not the part that moved me the most. It was An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere. And the segment that moved me, oddly enough, was when the drill sergeant went all out trying to make Gere decide to quit the service. The drill sergeant pushed him beyond anything a person could endure. All through the ordeal the sergeant kept at him: "Do you want to quit yet? Will you quit?" "No sir," Gere continues to answer. Near the end of the ordeal when Gere is almost washed out, the sergeant, frustrated and angry, finally asks "Why don't you quit, why don't you just pack up and go? Why? Why? Why?" Gere yells back : "because I have no where else to go."
The way we perceive ourselves and the way we ask these important questions do not just come out of the blue. They are conditioned by our culture and our language and how we view the universe. Thus a cosmology or world view becomes significant in forming the way we understand ourselves. Our anthropology is dependent on our cosmology, I think. In the beginning of the century Heisenberg made a revolutionary claim challenging the long-held belief that there was something called pure objectivity. The Heisenberg principle, as I understand it, reveals that the observer affects what is observed. Contemporaneously Einstein discovers relativity, which it should be noted is not what we mean by relativism, but that there is no such thing as absolute motion in any universal frame of reference, but in any given frame of reference the laws of physics are indeed absolute. Time and distance are relative to the motion of the observer in any given frame of reference. Relativity has now turned toward the subject and the problem if I may put it this way is that we are no longer sure of where our frames of reference begin and end. Permit me a rather simplistic example. in wintertime I listen to the daily weather reports giving the temperature at, say, 28 degrees F. Then we are told the temperature, with the now-long-accepted wind chill factor, is, say, 3 below zero. Which, then, is the true temperature? The one measured through the frame of reference of mercury, or the subjective feel of the cold on a human body like mine? Or are they both true, neither being absolute, because we are talking of two different frames of references?
Thinking about destiny and chance I coincidentally (are there such things as coincidences?) read James Hillman's new book The Soul's Code, which is about destiny and chance and call. He creates what he calls his "acorn theory," a Platonic paradigm where, like an acorn which is encoded with all the necessary stuff to become a great Oak, our "daimons," he calls them, pre-exist us and choose our parents, our whole lives written already.
Hillman uses three categories to describe basic ways of understanding our relation to the universe and to ourselves: fatalism, teleological finalism, and what I have amended to call an existentialist heroism. I'll use the same categories but explain them as I understand them by stories from literature and life. The categories will overlap and not be so neat, but try to imagine which you would basically prefer to see yourself in and why.
The first of Hillman's categories is Fatalism, which says: "Everything is in the hands of the gods." (James Hillman. The Soul's Code, p.206)
In John Updike's latest novel In the Beauty of the Lilies we see a poignant example of the meaning of fatalism. In this case a religious fatalism, particularly in the teaching of Calvinist predestination, or Election. The individual is either saved or condemned -- even before he is born. In the novel, Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister is presented as a well-read and successful preacher whose readings of Ingersoll and Darwin have planted that seed of doubt in his mind. The seed bursts full grown when Clarence is called to comfort a dying parishioner. Mr. Orr is steeped in Calvinist predestination and whose only complaint is that Clarence did not preach a doctrine of damnation with more fervor.
(Mr. Orr to Clarence:) "'What do you think my chances are, to find myself among the elect?'
...'In all frankness,' (Clarence) said as gravely as he could, into the small monkeyish face, 'I should estimate your chances to be excellent. Have you, in the course of your life as best as you can remember, ever enjoyed a palpable experience of the living Christ?' Clarence's mouth felt dry, dragging forth this old formula, with its invitation to hallucination and hysteria.
'I cannot honestly recollect ever enjoying that. I've searched my heart, but it's hard to say, now, isn't it? Some of these women, they boast of the Lord as if He comes to pay court every night. I've had what you might call promptings, during prayer and on rare occasion in the middle of the day, while about business of another sort. But I wouldn't want to make claims for them as palpable experiences. A palpable experience, I guess you'd have no doubt -- isn't that so?'
He had struck a note of sly wheedling that brought home to Clarence the cruelty of a theology that sets us to ransacking our nervous system for a pass to Heaven, even a shred of a ticket. 'You're too modest, Mr. Orr. Anyway, some among us teaching elders hold that there can be no palpable experience -- just the impalpable experience of existing in God's grace, won anew by His Son Jesus Christ.'
The silence that greeted this was perhaps longer than Clarence imagined it. Then Orr said, ' Well, if I'm not to be among the saved, it was laid down that way at the beginning of Creation, and what can a body to do? Tell me, sir. What can we poor bodies down here do?'
Clarence was taken aback; dying was making the man conversationally ruthless. 'What we can do, Mr. Orr, is to do good to our fellow man and trust in the Lord and enjoy His gifts when they are granted us. I don't see how any deity can ask more of us than that.'
Orr closed one eye, as if to sharpen his vision from the other. 'You don't. Is that right? You talk like it's six of one and a half-dozen of the other. We're not dealing here with any deity, we're dealing with the true and only God. He asks the world and then some.
Clarence though to respond, but his voice was slow to come, and the withered little laborer, opening both eyes, went on challengingly: 'Reverend Wilmot, my life's been hard. I never had advantages. I never thought I had enough to spare to take a wife, though there were several that were willing, when I was young and able. Having pout up with a hard life for sixty-six years, without much comfort in it but hope of the next, I'm not afraid to face the worst. I'll take damnation in good stride if that's what's to come.'
'Oh come now, Mr. Orr! -- there can be no question of your damnation.'
'No, sir? No question. And why would that be?'
Clarence weakly gestured, unable politely enough to frame his impression that Mr. Orr was not worth the effort, the effort of God's maintaining and stoking and staffing an eternal factory of punishment.
The man's suspicions were aroused; he repeated the scrabbling effort of his elbows to raise himself in bed. 'Damnation's what my parents brought me up to believe in. They were regular pious folk, from Sussex County. There's the elect and the others, damned. It's in the Bible, over and over, right out of Jesus' mouth. It makes good sense. You can't have light without the dark. How can you be saved, if you can't be damned? Answer me that. It's part of the equation. You can't have good without bad, that's why the bad exists. That's what my parents held -- pious folk, good people, lost their pig farm to the banks in the Panic of '73, never got their heads above water since. ...So tell me, Reverend Wilmot, where's the flaw in my reasoning? You're a learned man -- that comes across real clear Sunday mornings.'
... He sensed that Orr was terrified, and he knew that even as recently as yesterday he would have had stronger answers for him. But he forced out the words. He said, 'You've left God's infinite mercy out of the equation, Mr. Orr -- there's the flaw. Jesus spoke of Hell and outer darkness but he only condemned devils to it for certain, and who of us can claim to be a devil? Who would be so proud? God showed man his love twice...Don't bother yourself abut damnation, I beg you, my good friend, but think instead of the glorious Resurrection and life everlasting...
The dying man turned his ashen, shrivelled face to study his comforter. 'Don't you believe in damnation at all?' he asked.
'Me myself? Absolutely I do. Without a doubt, absolutely. But not for you, Mr. Orr. Not for as hard a worker and as faithful a churchgoer as you. Certainly as a matter of abstract doctrine there has to be a state of non-election. And -- who knows? -- there may well be in the world men wicked enough to be eternally damned.'
'Them Oriental potentates with all the jewels and wives,' Mr. Orr offered.
'Exactly,' (Clarence replied.)
...(But Mr. Orr continued) 'Take away damnation, in my opinion, a man might as well be an atheist. A God that can't damn a body to an eternal Hell can't lift a body up out of the grave either.'
'Mr. Orr, in order to relieve your mind...'
'Young man, don't worry about relieving my mind. I told you, I can face it. I can face the worst, if it was always ordained. God's as helpless in this as I am.'
'Well, now, that's just it, isn't it? How can a God be considered helpless--'
'If He's made his elections at the beginning of time, He is," (Orr said). "He can't keep changing His mind. I guess that's something He can't do...You take counsel with yourself, Reverend Wilmot, and see if you can't think a bit more kindly of damnation. To tell a man he can't be damned has logical consequences you haven't taken into account. There have to be losers, or there can't be winners.
There are non-religious examples of this type of fatalism. Materialistic evolution is a case in point. The PBS special A Glorious Accident is a good example. The title gives a hint of the content. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard apologist of Darwinism, credits the emergence of homo sapiens to a series of contingencies, radical in nature --chance happenings -- if you will, as necessary preconditions in the evolutionary process. To ask if those particular contingencies were themselves evidence for an intelligent guiding design is beyond the scope of science, Gould maintains. In this I think Darwinian evolutionary theory is not so different from a Calvinist theology of Election -- both Fatalist in essence.
The adoptee as fatalist: You might have heard it before from a friend or sometime on TV. The adoptee will never search because this is the hand he's been dealt. Like a faithful Hindu who finds himself born into the cast of an untouchable, or the pre civil-war black slave who finds in Baptist Christianity the words to accept his enslaved state as inevitable and even divinely ordained, the adoptee too accepts his lot in life.
In all this talk about the early twentieth century views of science and religion a word should be said about Einstein. "In his physics, Einstein was deterministic. In the debate over the meaning of quantum mechanical indeterminism (Einstein) said that God does not play with dice. Recently an eminent biochemist replied: "(Oh) (Y)es he does, because he is certain to win." (Geo. Coyne SJ. "The Universe: Scientific Understanding and Its Theological Implications" in Origins 1/97)
B. Teleological Finalism
This brings us into our second category, Teleological Finalism, which says "it all has a hidden purpose and belongs to your growth" (Hillman, p. 206). This category too has both a religious and an atheistic side.
Paul Davies, a physicist and Christian who won the Templeton prize for Progress in Religion wrote: "Having spent half a lifetime working at the forefront of fundamental physics, I have found the use of words like design, meaning, and purpose irresistible. How can one accept a scheme of things so cleverly arranged, so subtle and felicitous, simply as brute fact, as a package of properties that just happens to be...?" (Crisis 4/95)
I believe Mother Teresa would fall into this category s would many of the Catholic saints, who would use the term Divine Providence to what Davies might mean by an intelligence present in the workings of the universe. In a documentary made on Mother Teresa some ten years ago, the maker of the film makes it clear how hard Mother Teresa works for certain changes in public policy or the like, yet when pushed to answer what to do if nothing happens, she simply answers: "Then, we accept, we accept." The same feeling, I think , is expressed in that very good film Chariots of Fire when the Olympic runner, a devout Scottish Christian, is asked his secret. "When I run," the young man says," I feel (God's) pleasure."
One of my favorite novels is The Diary of A Country Priest, by George Bernanos, about a young country priest in France who is deeply misunderstood and harshly judged by his parishioners. He is also terminally ill, and at the end of the novel goes to the city to see a specialist. He finds his way to the apartment of a classmate, another priest who has left the priesthood and is now living with a woman. The young priest's condition quickly worsens, he begins to cough blood and asks to confess. The classmate sends for the parish priest. After the young priest's death, his defrocked classmate decides to the young priest's tough confessor back in the countryside. The letter concludes with an account of his death.
'The priest (whom I had summoned) was still on his way, and finally I was bound to voice my deep regret that such delay threatened to deprive my comrade of the final consolations of Our Church. He did not seem to hear me. But a few moments later he put his hand over mine, and his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He then uttered these words almost in my ear. And I am quite sure that I have recorded them accurately, for his voice, though halting, was strangely distinct. "Does it matter? (he said. "(For) All is Grace."
Walker Percy, in his novel The Moviegoer, seems to be a Christian existentialist, though he borders on an Islamic mystic who might offer, as another name for God, that of Trickster. In this Percy claims belief in the same benign nature of an invisible God. It is a story about a man who is searching for meaning in life. It takes place circa 1960 in New Orleans over the course of the week which ends on Ash Wednesday. Near the end of the novel the main character is sitting with a friend in his car in front of a church. He notices a car driven by a black man pull up behind them.
"A florid new Mercury pulls up behind us and a Negro gets out and goes into the church. He is more respectable than respectable; he is more middle-class than one could believe: his Archie More mustache, the way he turns and, seeing us see him, casts a weather eye at the sky; the way he plucks a handkerchief out of his rear pocket with a flurry of his coattail and blows his nose in a magic placative gesture (as if to say) (you see, I have been here before; it is a routine matter)...
...(Later) he has come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color...it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rearview mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say."
Giving yourself to the universe, so to speak, is what mystics might say is trusting the Divine Providence. It is a strong belief, despite contrary evidence at times, that the God you seek is a good God. Aquinas called it our final cause or our final end is that benign calling of us toward it or Him. "Our hearts are restless," St. Augustine said, "Until they rest in Thee, (O God)."
There are others, though, who are not Christian, not religious, and even atheist who possess the same sentiment about the benign nature of the universe. In Mary McCarthy's delightful 1953 essay My Confession about her dalliance with Stalinism and her sardonic wit about fanaticisms of any kind, she concludes with a word about Leon Trotsky. In the following she uses words like chance and propinquity in the same context as historical law.
"We (those who became anti-Communist during the time of the Moscow trials in 1936-37) were luckier. Our anti-Communism came to us neither as the fruit of a special wisdom nor as a humiliating awakening from a prolonged deception, but as a natural event, the product of chance and propinquity. ...So, I did not try to be a Marxist..but got the name of being a Trotskyite. I am referring to Trotsky, the small, frail, pertinacious old man who wore whiskers, wrinkles, glasses, shock of grizzled hair...This was not a man of violence. Nevertheless, one can say that he died a natural death -- a death that was in keeping with the open manner of his life. There was nothing arcane in Trotsky; that was his charm. Like an ordinary person he was hospitably open to hazard and accident...(is this sacrcasm, is she ebing facicious. I know I'm not that hospitable to hazard and accident. Are you?)
One factor in Trotsky's losing out in the power-struggle at the time of Lenin's death was his delay in getting the telegram that should have called him home from the Caucasus, where he was convalescent, to appear at Lenin's funeral -- had he got the telegram, the outcome perhaps would have been different. Or again, perhaps not. It may be that whims of chance are really the importunities of design. But if there is a Design, it aims, in real lives, like the reader's or mine or Trotsky's, to look natural and fortuitous; that is how it gets us into its web.
Trotsky himself, looking at his life in retrospect, was struck, as most of us are on such occasions, by the role chance had played in it. He tells us how one day, during Lenin's last illness, he went duck-shooting with an old hunter in a canoe on the River Dubna, walked through a bog in felt boots -- only a hundred steps -- and contracted influenza. This was the reason he was ordered to Sukhu (the Caucasus) for the cure, missed Lenin's funeral, and had to stay in bed during the struggle for primacy that raged that autumn and winter. 'I cannot help noting,' he says, 'how obligingly the accidental helps the historical law. Broadly speaking, the entire historical process is a refraction of historical law through the accidental. In the language of biology, one might say that the historical law is realized through the natural selection of accidents.' And with a touch of quizzical gaiety he sums up the problem as a Marxian: 'One can foresee the consequences of a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting-trip for wild ducks.' This shrug before the unforeseen implies an acceptance of consequences that is a far cry from penance and prophecy. Such, it concedes, is life. Bravo, old sport, I say, even though the hall is empty.
If I can place Mother Teresa beside Leon Trotsky in this category I suppose I might suggest there are adoptees too who share this world view. the adoptee as finalist tends to say: there must be some good reason for God to have made my mother relinquish me and my adoptive parent adopt me. I will trust in that benign intention. But, the problem comes when such a trust in the goodness of the final end becomes a conviction that I should not rock the boat and upset the delicate details that will have brought me to that final end. Like last year I visited my mother's roommate in Pennsylvania. Sophia was my mother's roommate when my mother was pregnant with me. Sophia knows my father and has spoken to him on my behalf. We visited her close friend, a priest, to whom she had told my story and had asked his advice. That day he turned to me and said in "an old priest" kind of way let it go, just let it go." No doubt, good advice, but as he said it I felt that old anger rise up. I'm no Mother Teresa, I thouhgt. I cannot simply accept. And further, I'm no Trotsky either -- I find it hard to shrug off all prospects of knowing my father without giving it another try.
C. Existential Heroism
This brings us to our last category I have amended to be called Existential Heroism, which says: "integrate those shadows or slay them" (Hillman, p.206). It is the category that necessarily appears at the end of this century which started with Einstein's relativity and Heisenberg's demythologizing of the objective observer. Now in the beginnings of the new millennium we are faced with the complexities and seeming absurdities of a sub-atomic physics that some label as chance, or radical contingency, and invent oxymorons like chaotic determinism. Maybe I can put it best by quoting that much-admired guru of these past few years, Forest Gump.
At his mother's death bed, the conversation between Forest and his mother went something like this:
Forest: "Why're you dyin' Mama?"
Mother: "It's my time, Forest. It's just my time. We're all destined to die...Make your own destiny...make the best of what God gave you.
(Here a finalism is evoked)
(then, a fatalism, of sorts)
Forest: "What's my destiny, Mama?"
Mother: "Life is like a box of chocolates, Forest, you never know what you're gonna get."
And then at his wife's graveside:
Forest: "I dunno if Mama was right, if we each gotta destiny; or we're just floatin' round accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it's both, maybe both happenin' at the same time."
Both destiny and accident combined, an interesting thought. Remember the opening scene of Forest Gump when we see a feather being blown by the wind until it comes to rest at Forest Gump's feet as he sits on that parkbench eating chocolates and telling strangers his life story? As I watched the feather float in a seemingly random way,I was reminded, oddly enough, of the 13th century mystic, Hildegaard of Bingen who once referred to herself as "a feather on the breath of God."
This category opens up the possibility of choice. Not simply the choice to accept Fate or accept Divine Providence, but to cooperate with them, or rebel against them.
Trotsky's "shrug before the unforeseen, McCarthy writes, "implies an acceptance of consequences that is a far cry from penance and prophecy." It is a choice. When Clarence Wimot gives his last sermon, "there was a concluding and uplifting paragraph addressed to the late Mr. Orr's concerns, and meant to brighten, for all who shared the ideas of this departed spirit, the darkest corner of their Calvinist heritage. 'Election,' Clarence strove to say, ' is not a leaden weight laid across our earthly lives, rendering our strivings as ridiculous as the wigglings of an impaled insect or bug or butterfly. Election is not a few winners and many losers, as we see about us in this fallen, merciless world.' 'Election...is winners and non-players. Those who do not accept Christ's great gift of Himself waste away. They become nothing. Election' -- the word hurt and scratched -- 'election is choice. Our choice. it is God's hand...reaching down, to those who reach up. If we cannot feel God's hand gripping ours, it is because' - and now he felt his throat catastrophically closed, his breath reduced to a wheeze - 'it is because we have not reached up. Not truly.' He could speak no more. He felt strangled..."
Clarence loses his voice perhaps because he knows it can't be true. There is no room for the subject in the purely deterministic universe of Calvinist predestination. Clarence was giving birth to the existentialist religious - the hero of the late 20th century.
The writer Flannery O'Connor was asked to write an introduction to a book called Memoir for Mary Ann written by a group of nuns from the deep south who staffed a home for terminally ill poor people. A couple had brought them an infant dying of cancer that had eaten away her face. The nuns at first refused to take her because they said they only take of elderly people. The young couple, desperately poor, told them the doctors said Mary Anne would not live long and begged the nuns to take her. They finally agreed, and Mary Ann lived some 14 years. So deeply did the girl touch the lives of others that the nuns felt they must write of her. And then, in order to get a wider readership, asked the famous Flannery O'Connor, novelist and Catholic, to write the preface to the book. She agreed and wrote an extraordinary account suprisingly though, about Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hawthorne once wrote a novel about a fastidious American whose business obligated him to visit a London "poor-house" where the rejected, the mentally and physically and emotionally scarred, were housed. The man was utterly disgusted. He completed his business quickly and turned to leave; but a little girl, with foul-smelling sores and a cancer-eaten face, blocked his way. She stood, arms outstretched, waiting for the man to pick her up. "Against every fiber of his being," Hawthorne wrote, "the man bent down and picked up the little girl, holding her as if she were his own." Some months after Hawthorne's death, his daughter Rose discovered his diary, in which he revealed that the novel was based on fact--he himself was the fastidious American. Hawthorne confessed that of all he had accomplished in his life, picking up that little girl was the greatest thing he ever did. His daughter Rose later claimed that it was these words of her father that inspired her to first become a Catholic, then a nun, and found a religious order of nuns dedicated to the care of the poor sick. It was a group of Rose Hawthorne's nuns that travelled into the deep south and opened up the hospice to which Mary Anne's parents had brought her these many years later. Flannery O'Connor concludes that it was Nathaniel Hawthorne's simple gesture of charity that produced consequences no one could have imagined. A response to a situation -- a choice made -- and the feather blows in a different direction...
So we conclude with the adoptee as Existentialist Hero, no longer just the passive receptor of blind fate or even of the humble recipient of the merciful dictates of a benign Divine Providence. Now the adoptee reacts to the situation here and now, making a decision to reach back into the past, though he knows the boat will rock. And even be bold enough to demand he be treated with the same measure as those not adopted. He risks, of course, rejection and loss -- but he is in motion, moving and alive.
I confess I prefer to see myself in the last section as existentialist hero. I imagine the adoptee-hero unwilling or unable to accept a deterministic fatalism or even a religious finalism. Using the metaphor of Einstein's relativity again, searchers choose to move into another frame of reference.
The image I am seeing here is that created in the recent film Secrets & Lies. I'm sure many of you have seen this exquisite story about the reunion of a birthmother and her relinquished daughter. I'm thinking of the near end of the movie after Cynthia (the birthmother) has told her family that Hortense (the adoptee) is her daughter. It's then that Cynthia's brother Maurice tells the family that his wife Monica is infertile, "a secret," he says, "that has nearly destroyed their relationship." Monica begins to sob. Cynthia and Monica have long despised each other and so it is especially moving when we see Cynthia move across the camera frame and embrace Monica -- they have found forgiveness in their shared pain. It is only then that Cynthia can tell the daughter whom she has kept the name of her father. "He was an American medical student," Cynthia says, "a nice man. " Then the camera moves to another frame of reference where Hortense is sitting with her back to the action. She has been silent, but now speaks up: "Was my father a nice man too." Cynthia begins to cry again and responds to this request of Hortense to know the name of her father as she peads: "Don't break my heart, sweetheart, please don't break my heart." Hortense then has options: she can remain still, she can stand and leave -- but she decides to stand and move into Cynthia's frame of reference, embracing Cynthia and Monica. She has chosen to belong to Cynthia's frame of reference.
St. Augustine wrote long ago that "a body tends by its weight towards the place proper to it. Weight does not necessarily tend towards the lowest place but towards its proper place. Fire tends upwards, stone downwards. By their weight they are moved and seek their proper place. Oil poured over water is borne on the surface of the water, water poured over oil sinks below the oil; it is by their weight that they are moved and seek their proper place. Things out of their place are in motion: they come to their place and are at rest. My love is my weight: where I go my love is what brings me there." In this Augustine, an ancient, seems to foresee the modern problem of destiny and subjectivity. Somehow the final cause of my being, the thing that gives my life meaning, is also part of me -- my weight, for lack of a better word. Following it -- I can come to my proper place - to where I belong. "You have made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee," Augustine would also write, suggesting that motion and emotion, the continual movement away and movement from in order to get another perspective. In other words -- searching -- is at the heart of what it means to be human. The adoptee, in his exile from origins and his desire to return to the place where he started, is on an epic journey as mythic and archetypal as that of an Odysseus. In as much as the adopted choose to stand and seek -- in that movement, in that motion, from that emotion, they are a paradigm, a sacrament if you will, for all of us to imitate.