Finding Inspiration Through Our Ancestors

Assistant editor Dan Hoffman learns to be inspired by his ancestors’ struggles.

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Posted in , Aug 15, 2016

How we inherit strength and inspiration from our ancestors

I’ve been thinking about ancestors lately. The topic comes up often in my meditation group. We talk about our “stored consciousness,” which is inherited from our parents, and their parents before them, and so on.

Our cells come to us from our parents–what was in them is in us–and some people believe that includes the imprint of memories and experiences as well. This has me wondering just who my ancestors were. How have they shaped who I am? I never knew my grandparents and great-grandparents, only that they fled ethnic violence in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century.

I had further occasion to think about this recently while reading the novel Austerlitz, by one of my new favorite authors, the late W.G. Sebald, for a book discussion group. In the book, the title character is adopted at a young age by a Welsh family.

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It is only in middle-age, after suffering a nervous breakdown, that he sets out to discover the history of his biological parents: They were Czech Jews who, in 1942, were able to send their son to the UK before perishing in the concentration camps.

Austerlitz is a powerful but dark story of how trauma–even the trauma suffered by our parents–is stored in us. It is by finally connecting to his parents’ past that Austerlitz is able to find some peace.

The book is unquestionably a downer, but one of the members of my book discussion group took away a positive point of view. Jay, an English professor, told us that his ancestors emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms.

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“I teach in a college in Queens,” he said, “and my students are all the children of immigrants. When they’re struggling with an assignment, I remind them of what their parents went through. When they came here, they couldn’t speak, read, or write in English–much less write a paper! They had it a lot harder than any of us. I don’t say this to make them feel lazy, but to remind them that their parents are in them. If these parents were capable of making it here, that persistence, adaptability and talent has all been passed on.”

That was not a perspective I had considered. I would normally think that the challenges my grandparents met so long ago had nothing to do with me–but perhaps they are in fact my source of strength.

Everything my ancestors needed to make it through life—their wit, their perseverance, their faith—it’s inside me. Something to remember next time I meditate and seek to access that “stored consciousness.” There’s a lot more wisdom guiding me than I can account for on my own.

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