We are family
There are cultures and religions that revere, honor and even worship their ancestors. We don’t practice such a faith in our family, but I did take the time to talk to my ancestors recently.
My mother was ill over the holidays. My wife and kids and I were in Denver to visit my mother and the rest of the family that lives there. But when we first arrived, my mom couldn’t see us. She had a cold, she said, but I was more worried that she didn’t seem herself. Then she had a fall right before Christmas, which took her to the ER. She seemed confused when I visited her, and not her normal sharp self, whom I’ve known all my life.
The point is, I was fairly sure things weren’t going to get better for my 81-year-old mother. So I talked (prayed, perhaps) to her mother and father, her sister and brothers, and other relatives of hers and mine. I asked them, beseeched them really, to welcome her, to care for her, if this was her time to join them. And I thanked them for all they did to create the life my children now enjoy. As I did, I felt a connection, a moment of transcendence even, as if my doors of perception were cleansed, if only for a moment.
Turns out my mother had a minor case of pneumonia. We learned that any fever or infection in older adults can affect their cognition. She’s now back at home and doing well, and sounds like her old feisty self.
If the talk about transcendence and cosmic connection sounds a bit esoteric (hallucinogenic, even), think of it in terms of your family. A hundred generations of humans suffered, survived and succeeded to provide your particular genetic moment. How many other family trees fell during those eons, how many children died young, how many mothers didn’t survive childbirth, how many future fathers never came home from wars, shipwrecks, pogroms or posses? How many were taken in accidents on the family farm, fights in a bar or caustic chemicals in an early industrial age factory?
And yet ours – yours, mine and everyone else who is alive right now – survived.
In all of our family trees there must have been moments of truth when an ancestor’s life hung in the balance, at a time before he or she gave birth, and thus our existence was at stake as well. Maybe they were stronger and smarter, or more brutal and ruthless. Maybe they were in the right; perhaps not. But they prevailed. Take moments like that and multiply them times similar ones that occur in most lifetimes.
It’s a fairly humbling thing to think about.
Life isn’t about a family tree standing alone, of course. We owe our existence not just to our genetic predecessors, but to the individuals, families and groups who advanced humanity, step by step, over the eons. We have breakthroughs and incremental improvements in medicine, science, sanitation and agriculture to thank for our existence. What about the men and women who fought and died, sacrificing their own family’s future generations to protect ours?
We owe our lives to the persistence of past members of our own family trees, certainly. But it’s good to remember that we’re really all relatives, even when the branches seem far apart.
Researchers tell us that all modern humans appear to descend from a single group that split from African Homo sapiens around 125,000 – 130,000 years ago.
Most people living today can be traced back to a single group of humans who migrated out of Africa 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and then spread in different directions, crossing continents and land bridges, creating cultures and mingling and mixing DNA.
We all owe our civilizations to those early migrants and perhaps refugees. We are their children, thousands of generations removed.
And let’s not forget the generations and genetic connections that occurred without consent, branches of our the family tree we have in common that came into being due to conquest, colonization, slavery and servitude. This is also part of the heritage of modern humanity. Domination and despair is in our DNA, and part of our shared family history, now matter how hard we’d like to believe it isn’t.
Others have made similar points about the human family much more eloquently and effectively than this – “love your neighbor as yourself” comes to mind.
It’s easy to categorize strangers as “the other.” Harder to think of them as our sisters and brothers, or at least cousins several times removed.
But it’s the truth. And the truth, as they say, just may set us free.