Thanks to Atef Abdelkefi for sharing a story that inspired me to create this essay.
Shame is a human emotion. No human who has ever lived escapes feeling shame. It serves the function of guiding our behavior so we know when we are doing something not in the best interest of ourselves, loved ones and community. Shame is part of what makes us human and can help us connect to each other’s pain. While the shame each of us feels has different reasons for manifesting, we all know what it feels like. We all know it’s a low feeling that factors into self-harm, suicide, depression, lack of self-worth, imposter syndrome and other emotional states that keep us from shining as bright as we can. When we treat it as guidance, as all emotions are, shame can inspire us to question beliefs, challenge social norms, and/or change our behavior.
To be ashamed of one or more ancestors is a common experience. No human is free of flaws and mistakes. And most of us make a lot of judgments about them. As we connect to our ancestors and discover more about them, a sense of shame might appear, diminish, rise, or transform into something else.
When I learned about the traumas, pain and hardship my ancestors experienced, I naturally wanted to help them heal or, at least, ease their pain. When I learned about ancestors that did shameful things I wanted to disconnect, disavow or insist they fix what they broke however many generations ago. When I shared stories about terrible things some of my ancestors had done, some folks told me I had a responsibility to repair the damage. In fact, they suggested this responsibility was part of my purpose for coming into the world.
Now that I am more grounded in my spirituality, I have rejected all of that. It is not my responsibility to heal, change or fix my ancestors or their damage. Nor could I if I tried. The only thing I control is what I think, say and do. And the more responsibility I take for that the more Our Relatives will transform along their own journeys, simply because we are connected and inform each other through the Spirit within us all.
Remarkably, I have found a gift in my fluctuating sense of shame over the lives my ancestors led. It lies in understanding what their lives tell me about me. Now, I have no wish to colonize, missionize or convert anyone’s belief system. You can make sense of your ancestors’ behaviors as you choose but this is where my journey of sensemaking has taken me. So far.
When I feel ashamed, I wonder: What informed the choices my ancestors made and what were the consequences of choosing one way over another for them? Can knowing this help me think about how my choices are being informed? What have I done, thought or said that I am now ashamed of? Will I be ashamed later of anything I am doing now? Can the answers to these questions help me evolve my mindset?
I don’t excuse my Black great grandmother for disciplining her beautiful children with violence or for being shadist. But I can imagine how she learned that such behavior was acceptable through the example of her once-enslaved parents, whose role models on how to discipline Black children on the Reynolds Tobacco Plantation involved brutal violence. I can understand how shadism was a way she dealt with her own shame and an attempt to protect her children and grandchildren from being victimized by racism.
Similarly, I don’t excuse my grandfather for joining the Ku Klux Klan or for any violence he committed as a member. But I can understand how his experience as a horribly abused kid, in an Amish family that settled in a White supremacist nation and became obsessed with that brand of Christian superiority, made some of the decisions he did. I can see how he never learned to parent and reproduced the abuse he suffered on his children. I can relate to how he ended up ruining his relationship with his daughter (my beloved mother) because she made life decisions that contradicted his beliefs. I can further be thankful that connecting with him in the spirit realm has allowed me to sense his sadness and regret for the life he led. I can still feel the shock and despair he felt at his death when he realized that, although he had invested so much of his time and energy into believing in his superiority as a White man and preserving his privilege, that he was, at his core, neither White nor Male. In that way I have come to conclude that insights into his hard life and terrible decisions are a gift to me.
Overall, I it’s been helpful to know the impact trauma has on reproducing trauma and how decisions based on fear produce more of the same.
At the same time, in my belief system, because everyone and everything we perceive in our reality is an aspect, perspective, and expression of Spirit, everything we are, express, and perceive is also Spirit. We are Spirit’s eyes, ears and senses enjoying a material world experience. We all come from a Sacred Lineage.
Moreover, everything and everyone in existence represents an experience Spirit wants to have. Hence, it is not my responsibility to fix, change or heal my ancestors. As aspects / perspectives / expressions of Spirit we have free will and make choices that provide a variety of experiences (some anticipated, some not). In this reality, our experiences are perceived as linear. One event causes a response which causes another event to which we respond, and so on. We grow from challenge. Our parallel lives are also experienced as linear, from birth to death to rebirth to death, etc. and we perceive a sense of progression and expansion of consciousness with each generation.
We agree to the limitations of physical reality for the joy of learning how to transcend them. The values and beliefs of our ancestors and our previous lives were co-created by the human collective, put in place to provide us with opportunities to feel the joy of expanding beyond them, if not in this life, then another.
Furthermore, the polarity of this physical realm, is what enables us to decide who we prefer to be, how we prefer to act and what we prefer to create. What we want to judge as right or wrong, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, provide information for us. With experiences that make us uncomfortable or cause pain, we gain the discernment to make choices that hopefully better serve us, our loved ones and the planet.
In the end I choose to believe my ancestors, whether I resonate with their ideas and behaviours or not, did the best they could with what they had. Much as I’ve done over the course of my own life. Otherwise, they and I would have done better.
In any case, I can say the that the ancestors who cause me the most discomfort and shame, the ancestors with whom I resonate the least, have probably catalyzed the most profound aspects of my spiritual growth. They are as much reflections of who I am as those ancestors with which I resonate and in whom I feel pride. We are all Aspects of Spirit, sometimes not making the best choices but, nevertheless, catalyzing Our Collective, Universal and Spiritual growth. We learn about ourselves and expand Creation with our responses to every life event. Before I got here my spirit thought that idea was exciting and remembering it reignites that excitement.
I have no time for shame, blame or repairing the damage done by ancestors. I am too focused on ensuring I am in right relationship with my family, communities and Relatives. When all of us uphold those responsibilities, I expect Onkwehonwe Neha (Good Life) will emerge like a seedling pushes its way through soil toward sunlight.