I grew up in California and can still remember sitting in 5th grade class, learning about the Civil War. I can’t recall all that was taught, but it was the first time I remember learning about slavery. I was appalled with the concept and glad when the teacher told us the South lost and slavery was abolished.
At home that evening, I told my mother about what I’d learned and passionately said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe people would have slaves! How could they?”
She stopped preparing dinner and looked at me. “It may not have been exactly as it seems. I guess you don’t realize your ancestors fought for the South.”
I was stunned and actually had a physical reaction of revulsion. I wanted to deny it—hide it. How could “those people” be my people?
As disturbed as I was, I was too immature for research to try and make sense of slave owners or those who populated the south in the 1860s, but I did always carry a confused feeling of wrongdoing on my ancestors’ part.
George Norlin is famous for the quote inspired by the writings of Cicero: "Who knows only his own generation remains always a child." This quote is engraved into stone on the library entrance at the University of Colorado. Why a library? Because it’s where we research, learn and discover history—and where we can start to learn to understand people.
It’s wonderful if we have ancestors who sacrificed and made our world a better place, but sometimes our ancestors don’t fall into this category, and it might keep us from understanding them. Or pain exists because we’re angry or bitter at an ancestor for negligence or abuse. For instance, when writing my thesis, I learned that my family had a generational chain of indifference because of alcoholism—not such an uncommon thing, but it caused bad relationships in my present-day family as well.
I can take it further and say, being 76% British (says my DNA), I am ashamed of my English ancestors who didn’t help my Irish ancestors during The Great Famine. It’s history and can’t be changed. I can claim it, but then what? Hopefully, I say, “I don’t want to be like them.” But with me, I’m wanting to understand why they would do such things.
The “why” is where greater understanding takes place.
And so, I research and I learn and I better comprehend (without making excuses for them). I try and see it from their point of view. Often learning of an ancestor’s history and culture can help you understand why they did what they did and allow you to put hurt, anger, shame, or denial aside.
Studying your ancestors can help you put hurt aside? But they are dead, how do we make personal amends for their immoral ideas and actions? And should a black person hate me for what my slave owning ancestor did?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—to identify with their experiences or thoughts. To truly empathize, you must understand a person. To find that understanding with ancestors, you must research the past.
I had to find healing from deep wounds, especially those mired in racism. I found that a basic sense of humanity can enable change. It is counterproductive to say I am the face of my slave-holding ancestors, or those who mistreated the Irish. I have chosen to be free of my ancestors’ belief systems and the decisions they made, and I will not pass them onto my children.
Another way to heal would be to talk about your ancestors with family members and explore ways to move forward. Think about things in different ways by examining others beliefs. If we open our hearts to our ancestors as humans who have made mistakes, we can heal ourselves, families, and our nation of wrongs made.
The past matters and whether we realize it or not, our ancestors have been involved in our lives. But as L. Thomas Holdcroft said, “The past is a guidepost, not a hitching post.”
When I am feeling gratitude for those who went before me, I feel more connected to my community. I recently read an article in the Huffington Post about the health benefits of feeling gratitude. Gratitude brings forward positive emotions and boosts our well-being, strengthening relationships (past and present). The article is worth the read, take a look.
My book club recently read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. During our discussion of the book, some of us voiced surprise at how many of our revered Founding Fathers had some pretty serious personality flaws and engaged in immoral acts like slavery or cheating on their spouses. One book club member made the comment, “Imperfect people can still accomplish great things.” And aren’t we all imperfect? There are many levels of perception that help us develop understanding and compassion.
When I was discussing my 5th grade experience with a friend, she suggested I do a genogram. A genogram is a family tree that graphs data on hereditary patterns (medical and psychological), and other factors that play into relationships to help you find the events that affected your family. I'm in the process of gathering this information and look forward to learning more about my ancestors. If you’ve done a genogram yourself, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned. Please leave a comment that would be beneficial to this discussion regarding learning about (and possibly forgiving) ancestors.