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Another Perspective

The Burden of Family Legacy

One of the things in life that can be both a burden and a significant obstacle to finding one’s true identity is having ancestors who were super-achievers. These are the folks who set the bar so high that it is difficult to follow in their footsteps. Feeling not good enough is the demon with which super-achiever’s descendents have to wrestle.

William Cowper (1731-1800) was such a man. Cowper’s great-uncle on his father’s side of the family, and the man for whom he was named, was an extraordinary person. This man was a judge who earned the title of Earl. He was a member of the British Parliament and became the lord keeper of the Great Seal. He conducted negotiations on behalf of England for union with Scotland. A truly remarkable individual indeed.

Yet William’s mother also carried a distinguished pedigree, one that outclassed even his great-uncle. She could trace her ancestral roots directly back to the famous 17th century poet, John Donne.

Cowper’s family expectations pulled him in two directions. While his greatest gifts were more in keeping with his mother’s side of the family, writing poetry, young William tried to follow his great-uncle’s path. He went to law school, passed the bar and for five years worked as a commissioner of bankrupts. But fame and success in the world of law and politics was not his calling. Though he shared the same name, he was not his great-uncle.

At 24 Cowper’s bipolar disorder erupted. He tried to commit suicide. Later in his life he wrote of this time that his personal terror felt like being hunted by “spiritual hounds in the night season.” His depression made him melancholy. “The weather is an exact emblem of my mind in its present state,” he wrote. “A thick fog envelops everything, and at the same time it freezes intensely…Nature revives again, but a soul once slain, lives no more.”

Cowper was a loner. “I was a stricken deer that left the herd long since…” he wrote at age 54. Fitting into society when you feel like a disappointment is a challenge that has defeated many.

When law and politics proved not to be his path, he turned to poetry. He moved to Olney, where the local parish priest was the Reverend John Newton, the author of the hymn, Amazing Grace. Cowper and Newton collaborated on 67 hymns.

When Fr. Newton left Olney, Cowper did not follow him. The pressure to produce was over. Cowper found himself enjoying gardening, carpentry, and raising domestic animals. These became the happiest years of his life. Without the burden of family expectations, I have to wonder how much sooner he would have discovered this about himself.

William Cowper’s story illustrates the psychological pressures having super-achieving ancestors can bring. Family expectations, ego ambitions, society’s often-harsh judgments take their toll. Who am I? What am I to do with my life? Am I to be a lawyer, a bureaucrat, a poet, or a farmer? A bright and sensitive man, William Cowper was preoccupied with his inadequacies, his “sinfulness”, as he called that part of himself. Nevertheless, in spite of his struggles - or more likely because of them - he was able to achieve remarkable insights into God.

In one of his most famous hymns, written in 1774, Cowper wrote the following:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform….

His purpose will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour:
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

William Cowper’s story is far from unique. I have had military men in my psychotherapy practice whose fathers were general officers or admirals. In an attempt to live up to that standard these individuals sought to be superior military leaders themselves. However, military service wasn’t the place for them to find their true callings. When they tried and did not achieve the success of their fathers, feelings of inadequacy crippled them for years. Coincidentally, each of these men later in life found their true callings as teachers. Their gifts were different from their fathers'.

My point is it is sometimes harder to find one’s true destiny when super-achieving ancestors have cast their spell down through the generations than it is to have been born of more humble ancestry. Trying to be like or exceed the super-achieving ancestors makes difficult to accept what one is not. Yet this bitter pill must be swallowed before one’s true calling can be discerned. As William Cowper discovered, “The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”

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