Recently, I took a lovely trip to Scotland with my parents. It’s been a long time since we have gone on a family holiday, perhaps ten years or more ago being our last venture out. Spending time with them made me very aware of what habits and tastes, likes and dislikes, I shared in common with them. It also spiked up a frequent thought in my mind of how our ancestors really do live within us. It is a topic that first didn’t have any bearing on my interest beyond genetics. But how about the influence of our long past ancestors as people? Do they have any bearing on who we are today?
I feel that the answer is yes. It’s perhaps more evident when we compare ourselves to the immediate generation that has gone before, namely our parents. I have my mum’s taste in food, her willpower and my dad’s joking nature. Their choices and approach to life resulted in my birth, and their character traits influenced how I developed and in turn those traits now guide the decisions and actions that I take. Arguably, we are perhaps more akin to those who raised us, genetic parents or not. But our genes also can present a difference in our life experience.
Perhaps you’ve inherited the good looks of your ancestors and flow through life with people charmed by the way that you look. Maybe you inherit a certain foot shape and as a result have an odd gait when walking that results in leg problems. Yes, one is good and the other not so good. Either way, our genes can and do influence our life experiences. And rather fascinatingly, if you care enough to think about it, hundreds of men and women are contained within you.
I find it amazing to think about. We often think we’re only made up of mum and dad, but they were made of our grandparents and our grandparents by our great grandparents. Even tracing back just three generations results in 14 direct ancestors living within you. Some of us identify strongly with our gender, but when you place things in the view of your ancestors, you can see how equal numbers of men and women resulted in the miracle that is you. Only a chromosome determined whether you were to be male or female, but looking at ancestory, the choices of an equal number of men and women that came before resulted in your existence. If any one of them had chosen differently, you would cease to exist!
I don’t know much about my ancestors. Those who do know about the history of their family perhaps understand even more how their choices resulted in situations we currently find ourselves in. An example is wealth or inheritance. Perhaps some of us had an ancestor that amassed a great wealth and as a result we live a fortunate lifestyle in terms of wealth. Or maybe their direct descendant gambled it away and so now future descendants live in a less fortunate state than what could have been. We perhaps don’t consider enough how our ancestors’ actions have continued bearing on our lives or how our actions not only have a bearing on our children but can have lasting effects for many generations to come.
In Buddhism, it is believed that the suffering of our current life is in part as a result of our ancestors’ actions (as is our good fortune). It is believed we should make peace for our ancestors in order to be at peace ourselves. When we look through the lens of the lasting impact our ancestors can have on our lives, I feel this makes perfect sense. Their suffering and some of our suffering is one and the same. Equally our virtues will include a myriad of our ancestors’ virtues.
We may feel we walk a path alone, but our ancestors walk it with us. I often wonder what their hopes and dreams were, who they were and what they did. Whether they had a stubborn streak, a volatile mood, an unerring patience, a steady calmness, an egotistic pride, and so many other attributes that make up a whole. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that we only needed to look at our hand to see our ancestors. We carry them with us. Whether each generation wishes to be akin to those who came before or find them so horrifying that they actively work to be different, who they are and what they did has an influence on our outcomes. My view is we should work to continue on the goodness we have received and to minimise our ‘inherited’ suffering. We should aim, as each successive generation passes, to build towards peace so that we ourselves and all of our descendants may benefit from the fruits of our labour.