Whenever I ask a class of students or a group sitting in a retreat what they know of their ancestors, the answers are often surprising. Most people initially say they know only about their immediate family. Sometimes that includes grandparents, though often even their contact with and knowledge of grandparents or more ancient family connections is nearly nil. The attitude that comes along with those answers also indicates a lack of connection in many cases. Of course it depends upon who I’m asking. If the person is from a family that has recently immigrated, the knowledge is often greater than people who have roots in this country for more than two or three generations. Even among recently immigrated people, the answers vary widely. Sometimes a family chooses to leave the past behind, for any number of reasons. Those who seek to assimilate, often drop the use of their language of origin, or change their names to fit into the more dominant culture. Sometimes families are leaving behind a past that they do not want to be reminded of. On the other hand, some families hold onto their traditions, language, and history, and do not seek to blend into a wider culture. And then there are those who are somewhere in between. Regardless of whether a family is new to this country or not, we all carry with us a family and cultural history whether we know about it or not.
You may wonder why this matters, particularly in regard to our relationships with our grandchildren. “The past is better left behind.” “That’s the past, and it has nothing to do with the present.” “That was in the past, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me.” All common responses, however, our past does affect us, and understanding more about our family’s history can often put present difficulties, challenges, and problems in perspective. Coming to a greater understanding about our family’s history also can do much to help heal some of our family’s wounds so that those wounds aren’t passed along from generation to generation. Some of the types of problems that can be passed along through the family include physical illnesses, alcoholism and drug abuse, emotional and physical violence, sexual abuse, incest, family secrets, and other psychological and social issues and behavior. Patterns and behavior, personalities and tendencies, as well as unresolved and unhealed trauma does travel with us intergenerationally.
Understanding how the past affects us in the present, does not change the past, but allows us to learn how the past may still affect the present. For example, when there is chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs in one’s family history, the tendency for this abuse to repeat itself is greater. Along with alcoholism or drug abuse comes a complexity of behavioral and psychological responses, that when left unaddressed, create all types of problems for the one who is abusing a substance and for those with whom the abuser is in relationship. We, as grandparents, model behavior for our children and grandchildren. By the time we are middle aged or beyond, we need to have taken care of some of the major issues in our own lives. If we do not, we are contributing to problems within the family that will carry on after we are gone.
Often we get into the pattern of living vicariously through the lives of our children or grandchildren. As grandparents, we have the important responsibility to “tend to our own knitting!” This requires a responsible grandparent, to address their own character and behavior flaws, and the shadow side of our personalities, so that we are in the mode of continuing to grow and develop. We are at the stage of life when we have enough experience, education, wisdom, and self knowledge that we can still make some changes that will be not only for our own good but also for the good of those who come after us, our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. What we do during this lifetime, can do much to heal the intergenerational wounds that all families carry.
Our lives are inextricably linked to all those who have come before us, and all those who follow. In indigenous culture, we say we are connected to the past seven generations and the seven future generations. What do we know of our past and our ancestors? What are some of the stories that have been told about different relatives and issues that have been carried through the family lines? All of our family stories happen within the historical and cultural context of the times in which we live. As a mixed indigenous woman, I know the sad stories of the treatment that Native Americans suffered, still impact my family. My Irish heritage informs other troubles that carry through in our family. It helps me understand some of the reactions and responses that were part of our family’s culture. Knowing about this does not change the past, but allows me to work on healing my family from where I am, and passing on information to help my children and grandchildren continue the process into the future.
Running away from the past, choosing to ignore the past, or suppressing memories only results in greater disturbance and ongoing stress and chronic dysfunction. While working with WWII veterans, I observed the tendency to try to “forget the past” That is actually impossible, and what you may observe is that on some level (dreams, flashbacks, disturbing memories and responses triggered by inner or outer stimulus) the past is always trying to push up to the surface of consciousness. Refusing to acknowledge it only increases the pathological responses of such memories. For the last decade of my Father’s life, I listened to him sort through his dreams, memories, and pain to try to come to some peace within himself. This helped both of us, and I believe, will help others in our family as well.
Coming to peace with our family’s past is also important if we want to stop some of the patterns that run from one generation to the next. Beyond the important physiological and genetic nature of disease, is the intergenerational set of behavior and personality patterns that are grounded in past experiences and trauma. One example that stays with me after many years, is the narrative told by a young woman in Oregon while I was helping families chronicle their narratives and family stories. Initially this young woman said she knew nothing of her grandparents. After a few weeks of learning about some of the experiences of children who were adopted out, she asked to speak in class one day. She stood up (not a requirement to speak in my class) and told this story. She said, “I never understood my Grandfather. All I remember is that he was a nasty, angry man who drank too much, and died when I was young.” She went on to say that “He had been adopted out to a farm family, and was made to sleep in the barn. He was treated like a slave, and ran away from home to join the military when he was old enough. He started his own family, but like I said, he was an awful man. One day my parents found him in the barn. He had shot himself to death. At the time, no one understood why, but after I heard his story and put it together with what we have been learning about the treatment of people like him, I now understand. I still remember what he was like, but now I understand better why he was the way he was.”
Many of us who are mixed indigenous come out of a background that was told to hide or be ashamed of their indigenous ancestry. Many who were adopted out were made to feel ashamed of their heritage, and were actually taught to hate their very nature For some it was a matter of survival; for others it was as a result of being adopted out of their tribal families. All families, regardless of heritage or culture, have secrets, gaps, lies, and patterns that continue to shape the family generation after generation. As an elder, it is time to take responsibility for healing our own woundedness, and for carrying on the narratives and stories of our families so we honor our past and help pass on a stronger family dynamic. We need to do so in a loving way, not in a way that places an undue burden on our children. Before we have no choice, we need to use our time, our life, and our energy to help create a stronger family or to face the truth of our own family so as not to repeat some of the mistakes made in the past.
Willaru Huayato, a Peruvian Inca refers to one way we can help heal ourselves and our families, “The first factor in the revolution of consciousness is the mystic death of the ego–the death of negative thinking, negative personalities. We must purify the soul of the inner enemies. Every time a defect manifests–envy, gluttony, lust, anger, whatever–that impulse to the heart, ask, “Do I really need to invoke this? And then honor the heart.”