I found myself in boxes of old photographs

After my brother’s suicide nearly two decades ago, my parents stashed our family photographs in a hot upstairs closet where they’ve remained neglected ever since. Tragic loss shades even our most beautiful memories. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t let the photographs fade into nothing. In the process, I found myself and so much more. 

Paper photographs are relics. These days, we shoot, post, and move on. In truth, we’ve merely exchanged dusty old boxes for massive digital archives. We forget to remember.

As I slowly sorted through the photos, a smile crept across my face. I saw my own reflection.

My heart is handed down from a poor Georgia kid whose life transformed because of a football scholarship at the University of Alabama. My mouth belongs to a southern big talker ready to jump into the mighty Mississippi just to win a date with my grandmother. My mind comes from a long line of southern matriarchs tactfully wielding influence while blessing hearts. 

The photos captured pieces of me as clearly as the countless places and faces. 

Lately, I’ve been asking questions about how our culture ended up in this rough spot. I’ve been around less than four decades, and I’ve already seen real social decay during my lifetime.

The photos on my mother’s dining room table didn’t offer many direct answers, but I did notice there weren’t any polished selfies. Most of the images were family and friends in whatever moment the camera captured. Back in the day, we had to wait and see what developed. 

Now, we instantly edit out aspects of our lives as if they never happened. A picture makes your face look fat? Delete that chinzilla. Get a divorce? Erase an ex. Mad at your family? Block a brother. 

What remains isn’t a genuine tale of who we are. It doesn’t give people the opportunity to understand what we’ve been through.  

We’ve all seen the picture of a family in matching white clothes perfectly posed on the beach as the breeze blows through their perfectly coiffed hair. Don’t get me wrong. My family tries to pull that off too, but we also have a hole in our wall that our boys tried to fix with jumbo marshmallows. 

We connect with other humans far better through our pain and struggles than our highlight reels. The negatives give the wonderful moments in our lives more meaning.

As a society, we haven’t done a great job of helping people constructively work through the personal damage accrued over time. As injuries and emotions build, they’re too often expressed as anger, outrage, and fear. Most of us don’t want to admit we’re hurt. We don’t want others to view us as weak. 

As I went through our family photos, I didn’t handle the pain well.  

One photo of my brother, Tyler, and our great grandmother, Mama Gaines, tore me apart. I remember her weeping bitterly because she couldn’t understand why God didn’t take her instead. Now they’re both gone.

Rather than let my family know I was having a tough time, I got angry. I was furious that my sister didn’t want to organize the family photos. Her reasons were perfectly justified, but I lashed out anyway. I had to apologize. 

Multiply that reaction across a whole society. What if so much of what’s wrong with us is simply the eruption of pain and fear into the void of social media, cable news, and political commentary? 

As it turns out, the photos had more answers than I thought.

How can I ask others to fight their fears if I’m too afraid to thumb through boxes of old pictures? If people can’t see my scars, what reason do they have to believe I could empathize with theirs? The humbling connection point of pain and struggle gives us the power to transcend otherwise stark differences.  

Take a minute. Remember. Where do you come from? What did you survive? Who did you lose? What was it like? Tell that story. Show that picture. It’s certainly worth a shot, and we no longer need to wait for the negatives to develop.

Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at cameron@triptychfoundation.org.

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