A Nagging Question
Ancestor worship is important. Without our forebears, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t exist. Think of all the living and dying that had to go on, just so you could have that Friday evening ice cream! It’s only fitting that ancestor rites should play an important role in our Pagan ceremonies.
I guess I’m just forever the contrarian. Lately I’ve been wondering why I revere my ancestors.
Take my great-grandmother’s grandfather, for instance. He ran an iron forge in Western Maryland that used slave labor and was notorious for its inhumanity to its workers. I have a baby daddy great-great grandfather and a baby daddy grandfather. One hit the road when he heard he was going to be a father. The other one bragged about his prowess, all over my small Appalachian home town. My husband recently did his genealogy and found three generations of alcoholic, gambling, unfaithful men.
Who am I pouring libations for?
Sometimes I take the position that the ancestors I’m praying to are better ones, farther back on the timeline, who lived exemplary lives and looked out for their progeny. Oh, for the love of fruit flies, who am I kidding? They were human! Some good, some bad, some indifferent. Some all of the above.
It’s also egotistical to take the position that it doesn’t matter what kind of people your ancestors were, because their actions led to your existence. Let’s call this line of thought “letting the baby daddies off the hook.”
This nagging question occurred to me when I found myself venerating certain good ancestors while ignoring the bad ones. We all have saints in our family trees, but my sense of democracy won’t let me apply the gloss.
Here is my solution to this conundrum. Instead of praying to my ancestors, I pray for them.
Sorry, so sorry for the slavery. Sorry for the infidelity. Sorry for the drinking, the running away from responsibility, the human nature that you, my ancestors, showed. And, sorry to say, I am no prize either. I’m a chip off the old block, a conglomeration of the goodness and the badness that made all of my forebears human.
Perhaps veneration of ancestors should begin with forgiveness: to them, to ourselves, to the vicissitudes of history, climate, biology, and economics. Perhaps this veneration should include a humble understanding of the foibles of human nature. Pretending our ancestors were holy and god-like may elevate our self-esteem, but it’s dishonest. They were just people. Anxious, conflicted, complicated people: just like you and me.
My ancestor practice includes this forgiveness (and extends it to the people who my ancestors did wrong). It also includes the intention to do better. I don’t want to set myself up as a paragon of virtue, but I do want to learn from, and prevent, the mistakes of the past. The more I learn about the people who went into making me alive, the more I know where I’m likely to err. This is a holy thing. This is what those complicated human beings can do for me.
Anne Johnson is a public school teacher and the author of the humor blog The Gods Are Bored.