By Al Rider
“Know thyself” was one of the three great wisdom inscriptions on the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi – along with “Nothing to excess” and “Certainty causes insanity.” In Sage-ing, we pursue self-knowledge under the rubric of “Life Review” – one of the core values taught by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Usually, we think of “Life Review” as a searching examination of our own personal experience; but my guess is that even Reb Zalman would agree that to really know ourselves, we would be wise to move beyond just our own life-spans.
Psychology and spirituality both suggest that there is more to “me” than just my life experience. The roots of personality go deeper than that. We do not create our own egos: We are formed not only by our life experiences, choices, and relationships but also from DNA passed down through the generations and the cultures we grew up in.
“Life review” is incomplete if it stops with just personal self-assessment. To acquire in-depth self-knowledge, I also need to know my ancestors: Who they were, how they lived, their unique stories of triumph and woundedness, and acknowledging the something of “them” that still lives on in “me” and in my family network.
Sadly, most of us remember only the one or two generations before our own – sometimes less than that. Many of us never got well-acquainted with our grandparents; and even if we did, only a few of us know the particulars of their life stories.
Some families do manage to sustain vague “origin myths” across the generations – Where they immigrated from, perhaps, or some challenge that their forebears faced. But often the details of ancestral stories are never told. Achievements and “war wounds” of the past (both literal and metaphorical) often stay hidden. Though deep psychic and spiritual “woundedness” actually gets passed from generation to generation; the underlying causes for most family disorder often stays buried in our collective unconscious minds.
If only we could reach back into forgotten corners of ancestral history to trace the origins of our families’ strengths and weaknesses, might we be able to better cope with issues, and draw on our latent inner resources?
Family Recollection as a Goal
Fortunately, our digital age gives us a whole new source to tap: Genealogy is now within the grasp of everyone. Formerly the domain of a few wonky experts, the study of ancestral lineage is now within reach. Those who know how to do that research – what the tools are, where to find them, and how to use them for story-telling – can now come to know their ancestors, and thus better know themselves.
And more: We can bless our upcoming generations by reciting their ancestral stories. A family tradition is a priceless bequest. Knowing the family’s heritage can give young people pride in their forebears, and courage and inspiration to move out to live brave adventures of their own.
I have recent experience of this. When the COVID epidemic first locked us all in, it gave me time to take on a long-delayed project. As a college history major I learned research skills and vowed to someday uncover my own family’s story. But I’d never done it. Then thanks to the virus, I suddenly had both time and a new sense of urgency: It’s now or never! What an amazing result I’ve had: During a year’s online investigation, I discovered 3,000+ named ancestors, back to Medieval days… Peasants and royalty, saints and sinners, artists and soldiers and entrepreneurs and builders and teachers and sages and criminals(!)… A rich family lore, along with deep connection to famous historic places and events we’d never imagined being linked to.
It’s been transformational for my family and led me to launch the new “Ancestors Circle” currently forming in Sage-ing International: A small group who will tap into available resources, support one another in the search, write our family story-books, and leave a legacy to our children.
Tools and Outcomes
Online resources are plentiful. It’s like “…drinking from a fire hose…” Hard to know where to start on one’s own. Our little group will be choosing archival technology, then tapping into a wealth of online data, history, photos, family papers, obituaries, and census reports, all available for the taking.
I can report two tangible outcomes already: (1) My wife and I offered a “Grandparents’ Camp” this summer where our granddaughters put together a chart of the grandparents, immigration ships, castles and royalty from whom they descended. They’re now conscious of being “princesses” and proud of it! (2) We’ve also gathered our grandmothers’ kitchen notes into a Family Cookbook that celebrates them with pictures and stories, and contains cherished recipes that enriched our childhoods. Our holidays have become more fun and tasty and memory-laden because of it.
Personally, I have a more profound sense of Place as I travel now. I feel more connected when I read world history and culture. And knowing how the “heroic” and the “tragic” both weave throughout my family story, gives meaning to the “heroic” and “tragic” that have occurred within my own lifespan.
I was trained as a counselor/spiritual director, and so discovered how family trauma carries across generations. “Embrace the woundedness” is a motto for moving on toward psychological and spiritual maturity, and it relates also to ancestral work: By attending to the sources of our family pathologies and distresses, we get clues about how to move on toward healing and wholeness. Victimhood, abuse, PTSD, addiction, racism, history of enslavement, social injustice, war experience, prejudice, and selective forgetfulness will all appear as we unpack ancestral systems. But it can be freeing to articulate these “shadows” from my past, and then to opt for forgiveness rather than bitterness or depression. In my own family, for example, “healing of memories” became real as we reframed one grandmother’s tragic story, transforming her vague sense of victimhood into a badge of triumph over adversity.
In my Christian tradition, there’s a lovely scriptural metaphor celebrating the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” who lived before us and whose spiritual reality still enlivens us in many ways. To my delight, the archival family-tree software I use provides a “fan chart” to bring that metaphor alive. (see picture) Every time I call this chart up on my screen, it turns my laptop into a little altar, connecting me to my rich ancestral heritage. That same technology also provides a modern-day “Calendar of Saints,” displaying all my family’s births, marriages, and deaths in a 12-month graphic. It gives each week in my year new spiritual meaning.
In the same way, by crossing our family’s dates and geography with the history book, we’ve found synchronous links to events like the Battle of Hastings (1066), the Great Fire of London (1666), the Salem Witch Trials, most every major battle in most every war of the past two centuries, brushes with historic figures like Washington and Lincoln, and achievements in science, art, religion and business. A sense that “We were also there” in the past, in a very biological/ symbolic way, now gives my family a sense of mythos that transcends the dreariness of everyday routine. Which is the essence of humanistic spirituality.
Al Rider (CSL) lives with his wife Karen and a very unusual poodle in the midst of all their kids and grandkids in SW Columbus Ohio (USA). Retired from a career as a progressive pastor, career/vocational counselor/trainer, and chaplaincy coordinator on the US East Coast, West Coast, and in Central Europe, he’s now based in the Midwest as an interfaith spiritual director, tech guru of sorts, and is coordinating the new online Ancestors Creative Expression Circle for Sage-ing International. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.