“Imam Bilal said something that has continued to resonate with me. He said we must ask ourselves, from time to time, some questions. Where am I, in my journey on the spiritual path? Where have I been? Where am I now? And in which direction am I going? These seem to me such vital questions. And the question itself, is more important perhaps, than any answer. To keep the question alive, to keep inquiring, looking, witnessing, experiencing. This is crucial for all of us, not to fall asleep on the journey. [...] These are questions for our species to ask itself. Where have we been? How far have we come? And where are we now? What is the situation on earth, and what is the path forward?”
Pir Zia Inayat-Khan
At first glance these are not complex questions, and in fact they may be questions that we often already ask ourselves. But too often we are focused on the latter half of this series of questions—that is, questions about where we are going—and forget that the first half—questions about where we have been—is perhaps of more import, and questions that must be reckoned with first. As Terry Tempest Williams once said: “It’s time to look in the mirror and reflect on the histories that are mine, that are ours.” So here we ask: where have we been? What are our lineages and legacies?
It is not at all surprising that we turn our eyes away from this work: capitalistic modernity imbues in us all a sense of urgency and linearity of time that demands for us to make plan after plan. World leaders, people who sit atop corporate hierarchies, and everyone who is deemed influential in this moneyed economy come together for conferences; public figures, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and movement organisers gather together for forums; and within these spaces we only think to ask: what next? What do we do now? We have become future-oriented, solutions-obsessed creatures, mostly out of necessity: it is the only way most of us think we can survive.
But charging forward with blueprints and plans of action, down a linear path of time will eventually leave us lost in the dark. At some point, we will realise that we have run out of breath and that we have nothing within us to guide the way. As Pir Zia Inayat-Khan says: “If we do not ask these questions, we drift unconsciously, randomly. Yes, grace still reaches us, but we have lost the opportunity to participate consciously and purposefully in the destiny of the planet. And is there any other reason for us to have incarnated in the first place?” To participate fully in this reality we must know both where we are going, and where we come from.
“Only after we have faced ourselves truthfully, can we understand how and why we have arrived where we are today. Only after we have taken responsibility for the aspects of ourselves that have caused the desecration to take place – the greed, trauma, disconnection etc – can we step out of the intergenerational cycles of unconscious patterns and choose a different path.”
If we only look in one direction we fail to see that we might be going in circles. Perhaps we can only meaningfully change things if we realise that why we’re here is precisely because we have failed to examine ourselves and our histories. It is not avoidable that certain devastating histories repeat themselves. Suffering, injustice, and death are not inescapable, nor inevitable: they are the result of unconscious patterns, cycles of trauma, and the wilful ignorance, the lack of acknowledgement and recognition of what’s in plain sight. If we don’t trace backwards and break the patterns, then we will reach for the familiar. We are creatures of habit, and if we don’t make active decisions to do otherwise, we will be going in circles.
When we look back, when we name our histories, our lineages and legacies, we intercept cycles of trauma. We speak words of truth, we commence processes of accountability and healing. In some ways histories are only as real as the people who acknowledge them: that is why truth-telling matters. When we publicly recognise narratives of harm, we can hold perpetrators accountable and prevent them from doing harm again. Victims then no longer have to be manipulated, and denied the acceptance that what they experienced was real. This matters especially when the harm is experienced by so many people that pointing to an individual person’s relationship to it is difficult: so it matters that we name histories of colonialism, and the ways in which it has brought indescribable harm to entire human communities, and unquantifiable damage to entire more-than-human ecosystems.
As Rupa Marya says: “The sum of our experiences in the system needs to be collectively composted – needs to be collectively digested. And when we arrive at that place of shared grieving, then the imaginings can happen where we say, actually, we don’t want this anymore.” But we cannot choose differently if we don’t reconcile the wrong choices that were made, and if we don’t know how those wrong choices were made. Unsurprisingly, as Marya continues to say: “Britain has never reckoned with the violence that it’s done all over the world, and the trauma and poverty and misery that continues in its wake. The United States has never reckoned with the violence, tragedy and the genocide of the Indigenous people.”
When we look at national historical projects what we find is erasure: which is further evidence that truth-telling can be so powerful. Entire volumes of history have been written with the exclusion of the truth. In previously colonised countries, watered-down versions of the past are told, glossing over the truth with stories of the supposed benefits reaped from being chosen. In the countries of colonisers and settler colonialists, indigenous histories, and histories of massacre, violence, theft, are found outside of national archives, stories left to wither away, with hopes that no one will bother to uncover the heinousness within. They hope that the people who carry those stories eventually diminish away too.
As Julian Brave Noisecat wrote before, referencing when the US military gunned down hundreds of Lakota ghost dancers and buried their bodies in a mass grave: “Maybe they were so haunted by us and what they did to take this land that they had to forget about their crimes—to put it out of their nation’s memories and history books.”
It makes sense that many who descend from colonial lineages are so disconnected from their pasts, so unwilling to do ancestral work: their histories bring upon them shame and guilt—these feelings ate away at them, so much so that they refused to reconcile with the histories, and further down the line there was more and more denial, more and more forgetting. Of course this shame and guilt is no comparison to the lived experiences of colonisation and imperialism, but this perhaps explains why many among us find this work inaccessible, or unfamiliar, or uncomfortable. It is high time we stayed with the trouble, and descended into discomfort. As Donna Haraway writes: “Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.” When we do so perhaps we will find that our lineages and legacies are not so clear-cut.
“I would [...] argue that all of us living in the ‘modern’ world are at this stage in some inextricable way embroiled in the desecration - whether we want to be or not. Our histories are complex and interconnected, and we all have different roles to play in what it means to take responsibility.”
Possibly when we look back at our histories we may also find something entirely different: that yes, we acknowledge there are histories of (un)speakable violence, that there are histories of our ancestors bulldozing over entire more-than-human communities (certainly those types of histories are being written even now and one day we will be the ancestors who are spoken of as such), but also that there are histories of us (loosely defined) being regenerative, healing, “good”. People who have only looked so far back in history often say that humans have, in our short time on this planet, destroyed the planet, and destroyed each other. But this reveals a regrettable lack of nuance, and perhaps it even means we haven’t looked deeply enough into our shared legacies. Because if we did we would find something more.
As Pat McCabe says: “Human beings can cause life to thrive. Scientifically it’s been proven, by taking core samples of the earth. The farther, the deeper down you go, the farther back in time you go. [...] In certain times, there was maybe only a little bit of diversity in terms of the flora and fauna, but then we see the arrival of human beings, and when the human beings arrive, flora and fauna explode, in a healthy way.” Ever since the term Anthropocene was popularised in 2000 by Paul Crutzen, many have been urging us to see how human civilisation—all of “us”—has profoundly changed the Earth, the proof being the mass extinction of species, the transformation of land visible through geological record, and more.
This work is remarkable, and important, of course, to hold those who have decided how we fuel human civilisation accountable, but to say from then that we—again, all of “us”—are creatures of mass destruction? That would be far from the full picture. For one, as McCabe suggests, there is science that proves that “we”, humankind, can beget flourishing diversity. But secondly, it’s too easy to take this scientific evidence and apply that to ourselves, and say our work here is done and dusted. We must peer into our own histories ourselves, and find the more complex, more full truths.
“Consider this. What would it mean, to switch from coming from original sin, original being flawed, originally, inherently destructive creature to seeing ourselves as coming from original beauty, and being a part of the beauty? In fact, all of the beauty can only reach its highest state if we, the human beings, contribute, if we make our contribution.”
Lineage work isn’t just about grappling with dark histories, shadowed parts of ourselves and our ancestors, previously untold truths. It is about holding that, alongside the fact that we can change the narrative from here on out. Acknowledging that there is a line back in time means making space for a line—in fact multiple lines—forward as well: we can choose how we want it to go. It allows us to choose to develop different lineages as we move forth, rather than adopt and claim other (indigenous) legacies. (Many descendents of legacies of harm make the mistake of claiming other lineages, instead of acknowledging their own first.) When we reckon with our own, we create space to rewrite and reclaim our own, alongside our lineages that came before us.
When we do this work then perhaps we will orient our time together asking “what next”, asking “what now”, differently. Perhaps then we can recognise that what’s more important is who came and what happened before; and that desiring to leave a legacy, make a mark, to do something worthy and “make an impact”, are exactly the things we need to stop doing; that what we have already done is enough.
McCabe shares of living lightly, and living in right relationship: “every time we go to take anything from the earth, we have to consider that relationship. There has to be some kind of consent going on, in order for me to acknowledge the sovereignty of all beings. So we always make offering: we always talk to our relatives, we talk to that sage before we take it, we talk to the corn before we harvest it, we acknowledge our long lineage of relationship. We ask permission: who’s ready to be harvested? We leave some so that other beings that count on that which we also count on, can have what they need. Sometimes we only harvest a third of it, so we can know that the future generations of what we’re harvesting will continue. There’s a mindset about how to allow this sovereignty of all beings to exist.”
Working with our lineages and legacies means beginning to enter a relationship with our ancestors and our descendents. We are rooting ourselves back and forth in time, connecting across generations and thinking cyclically. It is an unravelling process: but not in the sense of disengaging and disentangling. It is not clarifying to separate. Instead it is unravelling a mystery, resolving obscurity, going deep within the fog and emerging from it on the other side, to find ourselves embedded among and embracing each other. This is an invitation to be more, not less, together. Because once we acknowledge what has happened then can true kinship form, no holds barred, guilt, resentment, fear, mistrust, despair, pain, all healed.
“We can reweave the world anew, not from the places of fear and doubt, but from the intimate spaces of belonging we must retrieve for ourselves. We are Earth unraveling and reforming creation. We are meant to engage not isolate. These are difficult days. What causes us to recoil, strike, and retreat is also what allows us to reach out from the anxiety of unknowing and dare to trust what is to come—a reassembling of our humanity.
There is something deeper than hope. Between the hours of darkness and dawn, the voices of our ancestors are amplified in the dreamtime—warning us of our awakening wisdom—a blessing to behold and a burden to enact.”
“Unraveling”, Terry Tempest Williams