Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Answering for Our Ancestors

What happens when you discover an unsavory character attached to your family tree? It’s a topic that comes up during discussions about ancestor work, as if that discovery re-colors the shade of who you are. It doesn’t. Who you are hasn’t changed. What it does do, is add depth and dimension to your family history, of who your people were, and how they evolved over generations. How would we see the light without the darkness, too?
The reality is that many of us, were we able to trace our family lines fully enough, would find ancestors who fought against native peoples, owned slaves, fought against the suffragette movement, treated their wives and children like possessions, signed documents telling the local Jewish communities to move on, spent time in prison, etc. Serial killers have families, too. Everyone’s family history is riddled with ne’er-do-wells, because once upon a time, those things were the way people were in the world. They were accepted and normative of society. Slavery existed long before people started using other cultures instead of the weak and poor of their own. It doesn’t mean it is okay. But the fact that we believe slavery to be rightfully wrong now, doesn’t re-write how it was or what happened. I would love to believe that my family members have always been righteous, good people, who weren’t afraid to buck a bad system, but it’s just not true.
I expect to find some black sheep, and there probably are more than a few among the names I know already, but census reports and land deeds don’t tell you about the quality of a man. I know that if I were to discover, for example, that one of my wayward ancestors was a soldier who carried out the massacre at Wounded Knee, I would be heartbroken. I would feel as if some of that wrongness was part of me, in me.
That’s what makes free will so important. Our days are filled with choices and actions we take that could lead us along the light path or stray us towards the dark side of being human. Sometimes people fail and their presence in our family tree serves to remind us of that truth- sometimes people fall. And they encourage us to be the best version of ourselves we can be, now and here.
That’s the line of thinking that shapes my ancestor work. I believe that the early colonial settlers were wrong to come over, treat an indigenous culture like they were inferior, and take their land. Simply because my pilgrim ancestors believed they were appointed by God to be here, an entire indigenous population was almost exterminated. In this era, I would never agree with something like that. So what I take away from that chapter of my family history is that I shouldn’t treat other people like they’re beneath me or inferior to me just because they’re different. And I shouldn’t take anything that doesn’t belong to me just because I want it.
I honor those ancestors who came before me. But how do we accept these blemishes from the past and move forward?
I would hope that in this day, we would all agree that slavery is bad. The first slaves white men used were other white men who were poorer than them. And then when they started travelling and discovered white men who looked different from them, they became preferred resources for slaves. And then they found men with other skin colors and they became a preferred resource. And so on. Our ancestors used to treat people as less than them, just because their skin color or belief systems were different. That’s a very simplistic view of all of that history, but if we can look back on it and see those actions as faulty, as a wrongness that shaped Western thinking, we need to bring more tolerance and understanding to our cohabitation on this planet. That’s something we can do as individuals and as a people.
I don’t believe that we, personally, should take on guilt for the choices our individual ancestors made. That would be an exhaustive wave of guilt that would drown most of us out of living our own lives. We’re supposed to be living to make this world a better place. So if you have an ancestor who did a deed so horrible that it makes you feel ill inside, do something for yourself to find closure with that act if that’s what you need.
No one wants to know the blood of a murderer flows in them. Maybe the knowing suddenly feels like a curse. If it does, do something in your life for the world that feels like an appropriate counter-curse. Think about it like relieving that specific spirit of their burdens- whether that ancestor felt guilt over their own actions or not. Break the blood spell and put that family baggage to rest. Do something to better the planet as a means of learning from the mistakes of those who came before you.

The Bigger Picture
We can look at history and see patterns of behavior repeating over and over again, with different groups of people on the receiving end of discrimination and oppression, and in some cases murder and genocide: anyone who wasn’t Roman, Jews, Native Americans, Africans, Japanese-Americans, Jews again, Women, African-Americans, Interracial children, Homosexuals, etc. We slowly move through the pattern of understanding that our way of thinking is wrong. Slowly. I believe that by now we should be much more tolerant of the fact that we all share this world together and trying to force anyone to believe exactly what we believe is futile. Why do we need others to believe what we believe in order to believe it ourselves? We have to stop using what is different than us to define who we are not. Learn who you are, instead.
            I can also apply this pattern-weaving to my own family tree, watching the generations follow their forefathers and then suddenly make a change, move a great distance, switch vocations completely, or something that alters the static course of my bloodline. I am Sarah, born of English Kings and Knights, born of Norman Invaders and Viking warriors, whose own lines faded into merchants and tailors, woolcombers and carpenters, who merged with Irish farmers and Polish woodsmen to break ground in a new world. I am Sarah, born of English Kings, born of indigenous men living in caves in France, whose lines blended with the English and Dutch as refugees fled France, whose lines faded in the growth of a Canadian country and merged with indigenous blood, whose lines later merged with German and Irish immigrants, canal workers and day laborers, breaking their bones to build a new world. All of them, trickling down through the years, leading me here, in this space and time, sharing my work.
May we break the cycles of dis-ease with our fellow men, and find a way to peace and tolerance, that we may all work together to heal the earth that provides for us, without which our lives would fade into nothing more than memory.

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