By Kellie Schorr
I was walking out of the grocery store on this simmering summer day, a bead of sweat edging toward my gray cloth mask with a coffee filter inside, when I saw her.
She was tiny compared to my six-foot frame, inching step by step through the door using her cart as a make-shift walker. Her stark white poof of hair was a bit windblown and probably longer than she wanted it to be, but it waved majestically like a flag of celebration, or survival. She was easily 85 or more years old, frail as lace, strong like stone and she wore pale blue mask that matched her eyes.
Then I saw him.
He was an ox-like young man in a tight t-shirt with a broad chest and muscular arms but narrow legs like the type who never seems to make it to the gym on leg day. He’s the kind of guy who just turned 36 and is a bit confused because he was 18 yesterday. Unmasked, he passed me with a smirk in full stride, so proud of himself that he wasn’t a sheep. He gave a little snort as he looked at me, just so I’d understand how free and bulletproof he really is.
Then he saw her. And she, saw him. I know because she stopped and openly stared. Her eyes, peeking between the mask rim and her white mane, silently spoke two million words.
He dramatically snapped his fingers in mid-air and smiled with so much energy clouds were dispersed by the force of his brightness. Turning, he went back to his truck, reached into a tray, and pulled out a mask. He nodded as he passed us, the steely octogenarian and me, and spoke with a hurried cadence like a metronome that realized it was going too slowly and needed to speed up.
“Forgot. To wear. My mask,” he huffed and went into the store. She closed her eyes for a moment, and I know—oh how I know—she was smiling beneath her soft blue protection. I chuckled as I drove past the young man’s truck and thought of how very lucky he was to be wordlessly, expertly counseled by a living ancestor.
You are an ancestor
For most of my life I haven’t thought much about being an ancestor. I have no children and am estranged from my family of origin so I will leave no influence in the lives of the niece and nephews I’ve never met. My view of heritage has been reserved for other people who spend their time on geneology.com or own pictures of family crests emblazoned with lion heads.
There are some practices in tantric Buddhism that include a prayer or an homage to the lamas in our lineage (essentially, a line of ancestors) and they speak to me at a primal level because they connect to me to “before” and they encourage me to carry their “after.” They remind me that it doesn’t matter if you have children, leave a headstone, or show up in the pages of a history book, you are part of a collective generation that will be another generation’s “before.”
You are an ancestor.
As we watch statues of other ancestors, specifically Civil War generals and owners of slaves, being pulled down as the hallmark of a present age no longer willing to glorify a painful, evil past without context or conscious reckoning, it is a little frightening to think of ourselves as ancestors. It’s a blunt news cycle reminder that not all fore-bearers are remembered for acts or ideals that were good. In fact, some ancestors are down-right embarrassing. They probably didn’t think they were at the time, but here we are banishing their image and telling their whole story out loud.
Whether you expect a remembrance or plan a memorial-less existence, the truth remains that every day you are adding to a generation’s life link for the ones who are to come. Since you’re going to be an ancestor anyway, here’s how to be a great one.
Be There for It
Whether it’s your great-great-to-the-great granddaughter or a future Buddhist studying an ancient text from the 21st century with his robot maid, being a great ancestor means they can say, “In a crazy time of war, disease, political upheaval, racial injustice and suffering so extreme the physical earth itself was collapsing, my ancestors where there for it.”
People are marching in the streets to stop the killing of their race. Be there for that. If you can’t march, give water, give shelter, give poster board and paint, give prayers, give power.
People are suffering from illnesses without the ability to get basic health care or pay for life-saving treatments. Be there for that. Be a voice for health access and donate to groups that pay for care. As Shantideva’s vow says, “For all those ailing in the world, until their every sickness has been healed, may I myself become for them the doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.”
The earth is in great pain. Don’t spend this age arguing over whether climate change is real or not, just open your eyes to what you can see. There is plastic in the water, toxic chemicals on our soil, and pollutants filling the air. Be there for that. Be someone who plants without poison and buys from places the do the same. Shelter animals, choose re-usable/renewable resources, show up at town hall meetings, voice, vote.
Always engage in rest and self-care, but don’t hide away from the conflict and crisis of our times in a cloak of invisible spirituality. Be there.
The Four Immeasurables are compassion, kindness, empathetic joy and equanimity. They are called “immeasurable” because their influence in the world is so large it can’t be quantified. An act of compassion you show a stranger can inspire them to be compassionate, which inspires another, and another. The ripples in the water of goodness echo outward reaching to the next generation and beyond.
The southern soldiers of the Civil War had no ability to understand how their fight for their way of life would be seen generations later in a world where that path is clearly racist, brutal, and unjust. Yet, they should have seen this coming. They were fighting for things like manifest tradition, trade routes, profit from the suffering of others, power, and white superiority. All of those things are date stamped and destined to rot. Most were rotten at the start.
Ensure your conflicts and the efforts you make are for things that reflect compassion. Fight for someone’s right to exist in equality. Stand for things that reduce suffering. Promote a path built on kindness, not greed, and the world you give the future will be a place worth having.
Be Here Now
Truth is, the way 2020 has been going, if I find out three generations from now the earth is being run by a collaborative of grasshoppers and golden retrievers I wouldn’t even be surprised. There’s no way to really know what the next 20 minutes will bring, let alone understand the people who will look back to us for explanation and inspiration. The best we can do is the best we can do right this moment.
Every prayer, every decision, every reflex, and every single breath you take right now are the building blocks of the legacy you will pave forward. Be present and make each moment a chance to bring compassion and end suffering in some part of the world.
Then, you will truly be a great ancestor.
Editor: Dana Gornall