Time Perspective and The Ancestors

Including the psychological past of surviving adverse conditions for thousands of years and having a meaningful and inspiring goal for the future.

Prayer Fire for the Mashpee Wampanoag #StandwithMashpee

Here’s the thing about the Ancestors: if you believe in them, you are much more likely to have a long time perspective, which is critical for survival under conditions of duress such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. However, if you’ve been conditioned to disbelieve or mock traditional wisdom, chances are you’ve got a short-term time perspective.

Sherri Mitchell, the contemporary Penobscot healer and spiritual teacher, writes about the “many stories that have tied me to the past and connected me to the future” (2018, p. 12). During WWII, Kurt Lewin wrote about “tenacity and time perspective”  (1942, p. 105). Lewin compared two ‘types’ of time perspective held by Jewish people in Germany during the Holocaust:

The great majority of Jews in Germany had believed for decades that the pogroms of Czarist Russia ‘couldn’t happen here.’ When Hitler came to power, therefore, the social ground on which they stood suddenly was swept from under their feet. Naturally, many became desperate and committed suicide; with nothing to stand on, they could see no future life worth living.

The time perspective of the numerically small Zionist group, on the other hand, had been different. Although they too had not considered pogroms in Germany a probability, they had been aware of their possibility. For decades they had tried to study their own sociological problem realistically, advocating and promoting a program that looked far ahead. In other words, they had a time perspective which included a psychological past of surviving adverse conditions for thousands of years and a meaningful and inspiring goal for the future. As a result of such a time perspective, this group showed high morale–despite a present which was judged by them to be no less foreboding than by others. (p. 104)

Having a “life-space” that “includes the future, the present, and also the past” (Lewin, p. 104) seems to characterize Indigenous perspectives on the co-presence of Ancestors in normal life. Sherri Mitchell “consider[s] myself very fortunate to have been raised with  a deep appreciation for my ancestors…[and] blessed to grow up hearing my elders tell me the same stories that they were told as children—stories that had been passed down through our families for generations.” She continues:

These stories link us together through time, carrying forward valuable lessons. They offer us generations of wisdom, providing an unbroken link to all those who have lived before us. These living stories are more than lore. They possess the wisdom of the ages. Through these stories the continuation of conscious evolution is secured. (p. 12)

When we connect with our ancestors and put their wisdom into action, we are evolving our collective consciousness. We are transporting the ancient truths of our collective past and birthing them into our future. (p. 13)

As a gentile (non-Jewish) descendant of European white colonialists, the stories that link me to those deep indigenous truths have been wiped out by the violent historical reality of conquest, genocide and supremacist settler culture that brings us to the present-day (so-called!) United States.

Screenshot of the first blogpost in a series on communication.

Last week, I mused that the internal conversation with myself even when I’m alone involves others, including even my own far-back Ancestors who understood themselves as only one aspect of a densely interconnected and interdependent ecology. Friends who engaged with me about last week’s idea questioned whether interaction with myself and various items on my computer constitute communication. One referred to my interlocutors as ghosts!

Last summer, at the 3rd Healing Turtle Island Ceremony in Penawebskek with the People of the Dawn Land,it occurred to me that the faith Indigenous Peoples hold in communication with their Ancestors is available to me as well. If I choose to believe that communication can reach across the eons, I am not precluded from being guided by ancient wisdom. It is an exercise of faith, no different than belief in any religious or scientific system: at some point, evidence gives way to a particular logic or ideology which fills in the missing materiality.

To date, while there are no particular communications that I recognize or identify as ‘from my ancestors,’ I am definitely gaining clarity regarding my position as a white person in the United States at this historical moment. This clarity is rooted in understanding my formation as the result of centuries of socialization in a particular historical thread. What I am beginning to grasp, albeit loosely, is that these last five centuries of influence are situated between a prior way-of-being and a future way-of-being that I can help bring into reality.


One thought on “Time Perspective and The Ancestors”

  1. Ibram X Kendi doesn’t say “time perspective” but I’m pretty sure this is an example of it for some Black American communities:

    “I loved being in the midst of a culture created by my ancestors, who found ways to re-create the ideas and practices of their ancestors with what was available to them in the Americas, through what psychologist Linda James Myers calls the ‘outward physical manifestations of culture’” (p. 86).

    “Surface-sighted people have no sense of what psychologist Wade Nobles calls ‘the deep structure of culture,’ the philosophies and values that change outward physical forms” (p. 86).

    “The cultural African survived in the Americans, created a strong and complex culture with Western ‘outward’ forms ‘while retaining inner [African] values,’ anthropologist Melville Herskovits avowed in 1941. The same cultural African breathed life into the African American culture that raised me” (brackets in original, p. 87).

    How To Be An Antiracist (2019). One World, Penguin Random House Books: NY.

    Review by The Guardian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.