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Honoring Our Ancestors

Honoring our ancestors is an act of love. We didn’t appear out of thin air; those who came before us created the conditions necessary for us to live and (hopefully) thrive. Noticing and offering gratitude for those gifts honors our ancestors – and also brings us joy.

Physical Ancestors

Knowing who our ancestors are isn’t as simple as it seems. I look a lot like my parents, so I’m pretty confident that I’m related to the people who loved, fed, clothed, and raised me. But my intuition that ‘these folks are mine and those aren’t’ doesn’t survive close scrutiny.

Anthropologists tell us that all humans descend from one mitochondrial Eve who lived about 200,000 years ago. If we all have the same greatest-grandmother, how can I say these people are my ancestors and those aren’t? Which cousins do I disinherit?

Inverting the ancestral pyramid (with me at tip and broadening out with each previous generation) doesn’t clear things up. I can easily imagine my two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents as ‘mine.’ But instead of three generations, looking back twenty generations gives me more than one million ancestors. Going back forty (which is only 1000 of humanity’s 200,000 years) means that ‘my family’ includes over 1.1 trillion people – more humans than have ever lived. It looks like you and I share a lot of relatives, cousin.

Continuation Ancestors

If we can’t decide which humans are ‘ours’ at least we can agree that all our ancestors were human. Or can we? Human bodies are composed of non-human elements. Our bones and tissues are made of water, minerals, food, sunshine and other non-human substances that constantly flow in and out, none residing in us for more than seven years. Our bodies are more ecosystems than identities: The elements and critters who live in us, are us. 
We are less human beings than human processes. And since processes continue, I’d like to propose that we think of ourselves and our ancestors not as beings, but as continuations. Human bodies live a short time – 100 years if we’re lucky. But the consequences of our thoughts, words, and action live far longer. 

Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. The pebble sinks quickly out of sight. But the ripples created when the pebble strikes the water continue out in all directions and last far longer than it takes for the stone to sink. Our actions are like this. They ring out across time and continue to effect others even after our bodies have faded. Actions are more durable than bodies.

Looking into the night sky, we marvel at stars that twinkle across unimaginable distance. Their light has continued across space for eons until, impossibly, it enters humans eyes. The stars themselves may have exploded or collapsed millions of years ago, but their light travels on and on. Our actions are like this.

Everything we do creates a continuation. Some human activities create beautiful continuations, such as when we act with love and compassion. But other activities create unhelpful continuations, such as when we act with violence or oppression. Our ancestors have done both. To honor them fully, we need to offer gratitude by carrying on their beautiful continuations and forgive them by accepting and transforming their unhelpful continuations.

Forgiving

Forgiving our ancestors is more than a decision. It is also a practice. I’d like to offer a four-step forgiveness practice you can use to forgive yourself and others.

1. Understand what forgiveness is: Forgiveness is not excusing, denying, or condoning harmful behavior. When we forgive, we intend to not let the present moment be clouded by the past. We let go now of what happened then

2. See clearly: Once we understand that forgiveness is not about letting anyone off the hook but about tending our own suffering in the here and now, we resolve to clearly see our pain. We don’t pretend we’re ok or bypass difficulties. We look unflinchingly at how our resentments are weighing down our bodies, stifling our hearts, and eroding our happiness. We can’t transform what we don’t see. 

3. Allow the pain: Our egos work overtime keeping painful feelings at bay. We hide behind ‘I’m fine’ and ’No problem.’ The counterintuitive path to forgiveness requires that we lean into our pain and practice therapeutic acceptance. By allowing ourselves to see, feel, and know our pain, we transform it. We soothe it like a crying baby. Babies don’t need to be judged or corrected. They need to be seen and loved. So too with our inherited pain. This work takes courage. It also takes time. We need to create space each day to welcome and accept our pain. This can include meditation, prayer, silence, nature walks or whatever allows you to let go and become present.

4. Respond with compassion: Experiencing our inherited pain without reservation or judgment builds the foundation for compassionate response. We know our pain. We know how to respond skillfully to it in order to restore our happiness. Therefore, we naturally want to help others face and transform their own pain. This is what compassion is: an empathetic response. 

Suffering is universal. No one escapes. In my work as a hospice, cancer care, and hospital chaplain, I never met a family who didn’t orbit some kind of suffering. Knowing that we don’t suffer alone helps us drop judgement, perfectionism, and unrealistic expectations and returns us to our birthright state of peaceful clarity.

Honoring Our Ancestors Deeply

Our ancestors are everything, everyone, and everywhere. They are our physical bodies, our continuation bodies, our happiness, our suffering. And since everything everywhere is inescapably both good and bad, we celebrate the beautiful and forgive the rest. This is the deep practice of honoring our ancestors.

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