Standing atop the shoulders of an unknowable lineage stretching millennia

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I have been thinking a lot about family, specifically our ancestors who no longer exist in living memory. They all lived full, whole, and no doubt fascinating lives, especially to someone in the present. Yet our ability to internalise their lives, their struggles, is monumentally difficult.

If even we are lucky enough to know our parents and grandparents, and be able to query them, it is no guarantee anything substantive can come from it. The stories that are passed down orally through the generations will of course be vulnerable to embellishment if not forgetfulness. They became, in the most generous way, an inaccurate proxy for a life. The natural response is to reserve only a little bit of space in our memory for them given there is no way to research further (unless you come from royalty or had (in)famous ancestors).

In Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, I was introduced to this idea of intergenerational trauma and found it fascinating. The notion that trauma (or intense experiences in general) can carry on through generations I am sure is not a new phenomenon in anthropology and psychology literature. But it was new to me, especially with the independence-valuing and growth-mindset-adopting folk growing up in the 21st century.

Maybe the struggles we have are unwittingly influenced by the trauma suffered in generations past, if it were, we wouldn’t know it, and we certainly wouldn’t have any means to diagnose it as such. It has encouraged me to really try abstain from any sort of judgment and instead be as charitable in my thoughts of others as I can be. Their lives, as all do, sit atop the shoulders of an unknowable lineage of lives whose trauma may or may not carried through. We can never know, so from my perspective, the best policy is to try to be as kind and charitable in our thoughts and actions as we can be.

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