The stories of our ancestors

Ancestors, oftentimes we blame them for the way we turned out, often times, when we are told about genetic conditions or generational curses and even karma, passed down to us from them. I have so far looked at my ancestors in that light, that they passed down only the bad genes and if only they had been successful enough or left behind some huge property (alas no such thing). Then something triggered a train of thoughts that led to this article.

Seldom do we stop to think about our ancestors as real people and to ask ourselves about the real connection we feel with them. What do they mean to us? Just facts of our history, proof of our existence, stories that tell us who we really are and why we grew up in a certain country? What about on a more personal level, what does a great-great-grandparent mean to you? The choices they made, the decisions they took, the path they walked, how does that relate to you as an individual today? If we for a moment, just stepped outside of ourselves, in the sense if we stopped to really pay attention to this relationship, it will bring a certain eerie yet powerful feeling. I experienced that feeling last week as I was doing an exercise online related to female ancestry. The coach asked us to lay out 7 pieces of blank paper on the floor, one behind the other, and then stand in front of the papers, with our back to the papers, imagining 7 women who led to our existence, starting from the mother to her mother and her mother and so on. As I stood there, closing my eyes and picturing 7 lives, 7 women, 7 mothers, 7 wives, 7 daughters, 7 dreams, 7 challenges, 7 failures, 7 victories, 7 living breathing very much human – human beings who led to my birth. I don’t know all of their names, only my grandmother, and yet I sensed these women. It made me look at myself as a special creation and it just shifted something within.

In the rush of our daily lives, in the heartbreaks and losses and the wins and the celebrations, we easily lose the bigger picture. We seldom look at our birth as the miracle that it is. We can go all scientific and say that two people procreated and hence we were born, but even science is fascinated by the secrets of the DNA. When we stop to look at our ancestors as real people instead of black and white photographs on the wall or vague stories narrated by our parents or grandparents, the sense of wonder seems to return. If your great-grandmother had decided not to have children or not to raise them, you wouldn’t be here today.

I want to share a little bit about my own grandfather, my mother’s father. While growing up he did not have a comfortable life, his father has chosen the spiritual path which meant he and his siblings lived mostly on donations (food, clothes, education everything was through donations). He was not content with that life restricted to a small town with difficulties even to make ends meet. He was a dreamer, so he dreamt of something big, he dreamt of a better life and he ran away from home as a teenager, landing in the big city of Mumbai. He did not have a high education; he did not have money; he did not have family contacts and referrals, instead, he had optimism and a will to work hard. He worked hard and, in a few years, joined the first airline of India – Air India as an engineer, repairing airplanes and working alongside the founder himself (Tata). He would go on to marry my grandmother and raise three confident and independent children who were well educated and exposed to as many experiences and travels as possible.

He was an adventurer at heart and my mother recounts the stories of his travels. How as a young man, he boarded a ship to London, knowing little to no English with little money and no idea of what he was going to do there once he landed. Just imagine, a young man with a heart full of hope and yes, maybe a tinge of fear boarding a ship to a world far away. There was no internet, no phones, and no computers. When someone boarded a ship back then, their families would have to wait months and months for a letter to confirm that they have reached and are safe. Imagine the uncertainty, the excitement of the unknown, now that is an actual adventure. Nowadays we don’t even go to meet a friend without first having their GPS location. He would not have googled ‘best places to stay in London’ before he decided to board that ship, he would not have seen ratings and reviews and calculated currency rates for the few pounds in his pockets. I always thought the wanderer in me was my individual trait, but maybe it is passed down from him. My mother would describe to us that he loved to always be well dressed, shining shoes, ironed clothes, and clean-shaven and I remember even in his old age he was always well dressed. He loved to travel and thanks to his job in the airline, he manifested his wishes. He traveled to Japan, Europe, and many other countries.

When my mom was 13 or 14, he sent her and her two siblings to Hong Kong on a kids-only trip. Imagine, he coordinated with his airline friends there over short trunk calls and he pushed his three young children between ages 15-9 to travel and experience the world on their own. Pushing them to be confident, to be brave, and to know that they can survive anywhere with a little common sense. I only remember him as my old grandpa who would act as if he did not know English and I would talk to him in English until I realized, he was pulling my legs. When I sit back and think, I see so much of me in him. My love for travel, not just to visit new countries but to live and breathe the local cultures, the local cuisines, walking down the road with a printed map instead of a GPS, hopping onto the wrong train, and getting lost for a while. As a solo traveler with a big grin on my face and a sense of trust that I will find my way back. I now realize how easy travel is nowadays, and am sure he would have loved listening to my stories of travel and been so proud of me. I never spent a lot of time with him and I don’t remember my other set of grandparents, but until recently I hadn’t given my ancestors much thought.

You see, most of us dream of owning ancestral property and family money or family lineage of the arts or royalty. We think of our ordinary ancestors as ordinary and that they did not amount to much. We never think of how much we already have. If my grandfather had not run away from home and taken that leap of faith, maybe I would not be who I am today.

When I think of the women among our ancestors, it is even more profound. These women fought for their right to education, right to vote, right to work, right to travel alone, right to own property alone, and the list goes on. Most of them were married off young and only played roles of raising children and cooking. They too must have been 20-somethings with big dreams and aspirations of their own. Many of them must have sacrificed these dreams so that their children would have better futures and so on and so on. We are NOT a product of random procreation, we are products of those thousands of dreams, aspirations, hopes, prayers, and blessings of a better life. Most of us are living a life our ancestors would not have even dreamt of. We live in cozy, safe houses with 24×7 running water, electricity, 24×7 medical stores and hospitals, all the gadgets and vehicles that money can buy, memory foam mattresses, separate bedrooms, attached bathrooms, and most importantly the choice to cook. How many of our women ancestors could skip cooking a meal because they did not feel like cooking and could just order food online?

This is not a lecture on gratitude, this is a perspective shift. If you find yourself complaining about your life, about how you are not lucky enough, or one of those days when all your insecurities are staring back at you from your bathroom mirror, when all the Instagram scrolling has brought down your morale because clearly everyone else has a better life than you when you feel like ‘what’s the point of it all?’, just take a deep breath and imagine all your ancestors standing behind you, rooting for you to live the best of your abilities, make the most of your life and most importantly to be happy. If you find yourself spiraling into a bad habit, just ask yourself what they would think, their sacrifices are all down the drain if we cannot look at our lives and feel how blessed we are. Imagine a young mother, maybe your great-great-grandmother, struggling to take care of her children, with no economic independence, and having one of those meltdown days where she thinks of just running away and then looks at the face of her child and promises herself it is all worth it because one day her child is going to live a happy life, nothing like hers, away from the struggles and the pains.

I want you to ask yourself this question “Am I leading the life of my highest potential right now? If not, what is holding me back? What narrative am I telling myself? What stupid excuses am I giving myself?”

Don’t get me wrong, if your dream is to retire early and lie on your couch and watch Netflix all day, that is perfectly alright, as long as you are content and happy. Your highest potential could be to actually relax and enjoy life. Oprah Winfrey said in one of her speeches something that was so powerful, I mean who am I kidding, it is Oprah so it has to be powerful. She was sharing a quote by Maya Angelou and she said she always imagines her ancestors standing behind her when she climbs the stage, the quote is “I come as one but stand as ten thousand”. Imagine the power of that quote. Especially for African Americans with the history of slavery, their ancestors lived through actual hell to survive and raise children who experience freedom today. Even if your ancestors did not struggle to that extent, they did live through times when comforts were elusive, resources were limited, there was no electricity, no phones, they survived the World Wars, they lived through the countless droughts, wildfires, tsunamis, cyclones, and plagues.

As a world the pandemic in 2020 shook us so much, it was nothing compared to the earlier pandemics this world faced and yet we whined and complained and baby-faced through it. What will our future generations think of us? So, before this article turns into a book of its own, I will stop here with some food for thought. We are living in the best time in the history of mankind in terms of resources and amenities and affordability of services in the larger sense. Most of us are living the dreams of our ancestors, we have the opportunities that they never had and yet we are the saddest and the most depressed generation of all time. Maybe stopping and reflecting on our existence, the stories of our grandparents and their grandparents will help our complaints fall on the wayside and help us appreciate what we have. Help us focus on improving every single day and working towards something meaningful, it does not have to be earth-shattering. Next time you travel to a new place or a new country, just take your ancestors with you on your journey. Believe me, they are watching you, they are praying for your and they are cheering for your success in this life. They are already proud of what you have overcome in life and are proud of the individual you have become. Communicate with them in your meditation, in your dreams, and reach out to them for wisdom, in a spiritual sense they will definitely answer.

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