Our Journey May Be Unknown, But Our Roots Define Us
Posted on October. 26. 2019
By Stepan Piligian
I have always felt an affinity for metaphors with the term “roots.” There are so many descriptors to connect them with who we are or have become. Roots are usually invisible but critical to the health of the tree or the human. They are our built-in GPS. As Armenians, we refer to our roots often when embracing our history, our families and our social habits. Most Armenians describe two levels of roots. The deeper roots are the ones that define our core identity and what we have in common with each other. It is an inheritance from previous generations and as such a gift that we should appreciate, nurture, protect and pass on to succeeding descendants. This is how our history as a civilization has been built. In one sense it is simple, but very dependent on the other level of our roots. This has more to do with our developmental environment—not just where we grew up, but with who and how did they influence or inspire you. It is defined by who mentored you and how you spent your time during your developing years. It is how we acquire our values that will guide us in life. These are the roots that shape the memories we hold dear in our hearts and make us proud of who we have become. It is this level that allows us to truly appreciate the deeper roots—our inheritance.
My roots are similar to many of you who consider yourselves American Armenians. I was fortunate to be raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard where the church was the center of our lives. My parents were our role models and later our inspiration as they lived a life of service to the community. Through their commitment, they taught us the joy of giving. I can never repay the parish and community members for the impact they had on my shaping my values, experiences, and confidence. Many of you have been equally fortunate, and we try our best to give this to our children and grandchildren.
When I was 13, I joined the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF)—an organization in our community that was the center of the social and athletic scene for people my age. When I filled out my application, I remember stating my interest was to play basketball. Not exactly a serious tone, but I was 13. The AYF welcomed Armenian youth with a variety of motivators: social, athletic and educational. Entering the athletic door, I embraced a world that to this day has been my single, most significant organizational influence. Once I became a member, I participated in educational activities, as well as social. I learned to dance. My educational exposure enabled my participation in Hai Tahd (Armenian cause). This has been the AYF recipe since 1933.
One of the unique aspects of the AYF is the level of responsibility it affords you at a young age. Planning dances, renting halls, giving an educational, organizing demonstrations and participating in seminars build life skills. Public speaking, project management, interpersonal capabilities and time management are just a few “tools” you acquire as teens that give you advantages in college and in your professional life. In a world filled with less empowerment (helicopter parents and fear), the AYF to this day is unique. The end result is a leadership development process that has populated many institutions and organizations in the Armenian community. I am certain there are many examples with other organizations such as the ACYOA, AGBU YP and ASA. My roots were with the AYF, and it was an incredible experience for the long term.
During my adult years, we made a conscious decision to fully experience the Armenian community. The schism in the church in America can be an impediment to that objective if you allow it to be. Having grown up in the Prelacy and attended the National Representative Assembly for many years, we decided to attend a Diocesan parish. Our intent was to worship with others we probably would never meet and to understand groups such as the ACYOA, AGBU and others that are traditionally affiliated with the Etchmiadzin Diocese. Socially, this was a challenging move. We left a comfort zone —part of our root structure—to explore “the other side” (thankfully that phase has faded). We didn’t know a lot of people, but time has a way of taking care of that. After all, we all share the “deep roots.” We weren’t leaving something or forgetting relationships. We were seeing the whole puzzle. The result has been very rewarding.
I feel like I now have a somewhat unique perspective of our community. It is broader in scope and very much aligned to our new post-Armenia independence cooperation levels. During this wonderful journey, I always mentally refer to my AYF and Prelacy years. It is my reference point. It is my home and my roots. I have met countless others who feel the same way about their experiences in ASA, ACYOA, AGBU or other groups. It is gratifying to share and understand the importance of having that “root building” experience. No matter where your journey takes you in life, we are always reminded of our foundation.
The AYF has a long list of admirable accomplishments. I believe one of the most understated has been its ability to develop life skills in its members and to apply them not only in their personal lives, but for the benefit of the community. Last week, I had a rare opportunity to see the AYF in a different environment. A very close friend of mine from LA was invited to speak at the AYF Senior Seminar. He asked if a few friends could accompany him to offer some commentary on his topic. During the first few minutes, I looked at all the young faces and thought about similar seminars a few moons ago. I was so impressed with the participants. They were attentive, asked great questions and had a keen understanding of contemporary Armenian issues. Then I thought about what has changed. We used to dream about a free Armenia and how to prepare for that hope. These kids have grown up with a free Armenia and are contributing to nation building. Most of the participants had been to Armenia and have worked at various camps or other volunteer service opportunities contributing to the maturing of the dream. They have a distinct advantage over previous generations, but more importantly they are taking advantage of these opportunities with impressive results. This is the best educated and service oriented generation we have seen.
Many organizations have established these types of programs in Armenia such as the diocese ASP, AGBU internships and others. Aside from the obvious benefit to Armenia, it is establishing a clear service value in today’s generation. This becomes part of their “roots” that will guide them in their personal, professional and community lives. It was an emotional experience to be at that seminar. I was overwhelmed with pride in the group that was so important to me during my youth. My thoughts drifted into how far we have come after nearing extinction 100 years ago. Those few hours were an incredible confirmation that everything each of us does for our “roots” is one of the most impactful investments we can make. Talk about significant returns!
Each of us, regardless of our background, has two sets of roots. The deepest and oldest are the areas where are heritage and identity are stored. It is what bonds us together as a people now and in the future. The other set is what makes each of unique. It contains the earliest vector of our life journey—where we grew up, our passions, those who inspired us and the values we hold dear. Together they give us the motivation, the drive and direction for our life on this earth. We should each periodically think about and examine those roots in the context of who and what we are. Sometimes when we feel the need for a small “course correction,” examining those experiences, values and attributes that shaped who we are can add direction to the path ahead.
As Armenians, we should never forget where we came from. It is important to think about our parents and grandparents, whether they are with us or whether we hold them in our hearts. Pass on these values, experiences and emotions to your children and grandchildren. Help them establish that “second” set of roots. It will guide them down a true path as it has for you. On my way home from the AYF seminar, I thought about our roots as I saw yet another generation take their place. I was deeply impressed by their desire to learn from those that preceded them. This is a core value of Armenians that I pray we never lose. It is based on our love and respect of family. When I was a kid, my parents insisted that we pay respect to our elders when they visited our home. Only then were we allowed to do our “kid” thing. I never wanted to leave them. I adored being with older people. When I see our people at events like the AYF Olympics, which is a three generation event, it warms my heart to see the inter-generational connections. I felt that value at the seminar. Whatever your roots are, cherish and celebrate them with others.