Looking back, looking forward: working towards being good ancestors

“Be a good ancestor. Stand for something bigger than yourself. Add value to the Earth during your sojourn.” – Marian Wright Edelman

The lives we are now living are laying down cultural and ecological tracks that will define the lives of future generations. Our descendants own the future, but the decisions and actions we make now will impact generations to come. What will future generations have to say about the kind of people we were in the early years of the 21st century? Would they consider us to be good ancestors?

Being a good ancestor can improve our wellbeing, the wellbeing of future generations and even heal the wounds of the past. In the Good Ancestor Podcast, Layla Saad, challenges us to live and work in a manner that will leave a legacy of healing and liberation.

Adopting the acronym, ANCESTOR, let us explore the ways in which being a good ancestor can be a work of remembrance, reclamation and reformation.

Awareness and Appreciation
Nostalgia and Narrative
Emotional Confidence and Resilience
Social Belonging
Transgenerational Trauma (and post traumatic growth)
Opportunity (for intergenerational collaboration)
Reparation and reconciliation

Awareness and appreciation
Knowing and appreciating our cultural background and where we come from can help us to develop a strong sense of our core identity. Discovering more about our heritage can help facilitate self-awareness, self-worth and belonging.

Learning the history of our ancestors also helps us develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the challenges they faced. It provides a link to our cultural bases, empowering families and individuals to reclaim their values, their traditions and their culture where they can write and define their own narratives. If we are willing to examine the story of where we came from, we can create new emotions and promote healthy action for the hard times of our lives.

Nostalgia and narrative
Remembering and reflecting are the two facets of nostalgia. It is a unique phenomenon fusing both positive and negative experiences and emotions. Studies have shown nostalgia can increase feelings of social connectedness, help overcome fears of mortality and increase meaning in our lives. As you look back at the facts of your ancestors, you may well start to admire them. That admiration nourishes nostalgia, that feeling of well-being that you are a part of greater whole.

However, there is a presupposition that one’s past is good, this is not always the case. For many, that internal narrative is a mix of positive and negative elements. There are aspects of our ancestry that we take pride in and things that shame us. Our personal narrative is shaped by the way we balance the pride and shame, joy and sorrow, tragedy and triumph of our ancestral past. This influences who we think we are and the family narratives that we choose to pass on to our descendants. So if you feel shame or sadness about your past, write yourself a new narrative. While we are not able to change the past, we can change the story we tell ourselves about the past. Pioneer a new story, a new story for the future: one of hope, of change, of healing and liberation.

Our family history pertains to more than names and dates on a family tree, it is about people with whom we have deep connections, making us who we are. Connecting to your ancestors is an acknowledgement of their continued presence in your life.

The African philosophy of Ukama, meaning relatedness, maintains that our relatedness cannot be simply reduced to our human belongingness, but rather that our wellbeing is inextricably bound with all that exists. We are both dependent on, and interdependent with, one another and with the environment on which all humanity depends.

A good ancestor considers their place in the circle of life, that we are part of a circle, not the top of a pyramid. As members of this circle, our ecological role is to tend the harmony and abundance of the ecologies we occupy, for ourselves and all species.

Emotional Confidence and Resilience
Known as the ‘ancestor effect’, studies have shown that thinking about our ancestors can boost emotional confidence and even intelligence. Although these findings are exploratory, it is supposed that connecting to our root system increases confidence and performance because we feel embedded in a bigger story.

Learning the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced, inspiring compassion for their faults, flaws and blunders. These stories serve to remind us that life is not always an easy path, inequalities exist, disappointments occur but we have the capacity to recover from these difficulties.

Social belonging
Belonging is an innate human desire to be part of something bigger than us. To belong implies experiencing relatedness and connections with people and society, not only in the present but also in the past and the future. In fact, it is our sense of belonging, and its importance to us as a species, that shapes the way our relationships with others, groups, and even whole communities function.

A sense of belonging and connectedness is a fundamental requirement to experience a meaningful and purposeful life. Despite contemporary Western culture’s obsession with the pursuit personal happiness, aspiring to live a meaningful life, to belong, to care about, and to develop something beyond yourself, could be the answer to living happier lives.

Transgenerational Trauma (and post traumatic growth)
“If we’re healing and transforming the wounds we carry from those who came before, we’re also changing the trajectory of those who come after.” – Dr. Judith Rich

When a trauma happens, it changes us, sometimes for generations. Although still in its early stages, epigenetics suggests that our children and grandchildren are shaped by more than their genes, that trauma can also be inherited. Slavery, racism, genocide and sexual violence are examples of intergenerational trauma that can affect multiple generations.

Intergenerational trauma is often expressed as unexplained anxiety, fears, phobias and depression. By identifying ancestral trauma and making the unconscious, conscious, we can begin to heal and release what doesn’t belong to us. Similarly, for those of us whose ancestors have been the cause of pain and suffering, we need to acknowledge our share of responsibility, express remorse, seek reconciliation and make good again.

In Japan, Kintsugi is a centuries-old art of fixing cracked pottery. Rather than hiding the cracks, the technique employs a lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Once completed, the whole piece of pottery looks even more beautiful, owning its broken history. So it can be with people, we can own our broken past and emerge from it stronger and more beautiful as a result. A psychological term, post traumatic growth (PTG) , suggests that those who endure psychological trauma can actually experience positive growth afterward.

These areas of growth include:
• Greater appreciation of life
• Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
• Increased compassion and altruism
• The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
• Greater awareness and utilisation of personal strengths
• Enhanced spiritual development
• Creative growth

Opportunity (for intergenerational collaboration)
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” -Ancient Greek Proverb

Understanding relationships between generations lies at the heart of society’s contemporary dilemmas. When we bring young people into our conversations and deliberations, they remind us of our role as ancestors, they hold the moral authority to speak on behalf of future generations. Intergenerational connections are valuable to people of all ages. Our relationship with younger and older generations is good for health, good for families, good for communities and good for society.

Our world is in need of both the experience and knowledge of our ancestors, including traditional or indigenous knowledge, and the energy and social mindedness of today’s youth. Having dismissed traditional knowledge in the pursuit of objective scientific evidence for decades, we are now facing dramatic social and ecological consequences. The holistic knowledge systems and practices of indigenous people and local communities are fundamental in safeguarding the biological and cultural diversity of our earth. We need to go beyond the dichotomy of scientific versus indigenous knowledge and work together to ensure that we correctly interpret the signs that nature sends us in order to make the right decisions.

Reparation and reconciliation
“As you step to the front of the line in your ancestry, the energy they embodied has been passed on and is now expressing as you and those of your current generation in the lineage. […] You are the one who can heal old wounds for your entire lineage, forgive old enemies, shift conditioning and beliefs, release pain that has held preceding generations captive for centuries.”
– Dr. Judith Rich (Healing the Wounds of Your Ancestors)

Ancestry can be thought of as a work of remembrance, reclamation and reformation. Restorative practice and restorative approaches needs recognition, reconciliation and reparation. We need to confront the systemic, underlying injustices performed by, or to, our ancestors before we can hope for reparation and reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires that facts must be faced, not avoided; accountability be taken, not avoided; that apologies be made, meant, and accepted. The purpose of reparation and reconciliation is to build a bridge between the past and the future, establishing a truth about the past in order to prevent human rights violations to occur in the future.

We carry a huge responsibility for what grievances and trauma, blame and shame we pass on to our children. We can start to reconcile with the past and the future by focusing on the fact that being a good ancestor requires us to practice one of the most difficult skills of all: to seek and to offer forgiveness.

Ways in which we can become better ancestors:

  • Appreciate that you are a mere link in the great chain of life, not the chain
  • Treat your elders with respect
  • Seek out and listen to the voices of the future
  • Be a custodian of the earth and a steward of the future
  • Learn to confront injustices
  • Challenge traditional ideas about the economy, excessive accumulation of wealth and distribution of power and resources
  •  Facilitate reparative and regenerative models of power and wealth redistribution to advance diversity, equity, inclusivity and belonging
  • Share accountability for the future
  • Work on your trauma
  • Find ways to forgive and be forgiven

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Further reading
Healing the Wounds of Your Ancestors by Dr. Judith Rich
It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shaper Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk,
Intergenerational Cycles of Trauma and Violence: An Attachment and Family Systems Perspective by Pamela Alexander
Leopard Warrior – a Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct and Dreams by John Lockley
Healing Collective Trauma: A process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds by Thomas Hübl
When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Maté
The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly by Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan