Think like an ancestor
This was the final column I wrote in the Whistler Question, and it’s not lost on me, that this huge revelation to me, of thinking like an ancestor, is something built-in to indigenous ways of thinking. As radical as it is to me, I think it’s fundamental to the life approach for many of my neighbours, which just reaffirms my desire to “decolonize my mind, and indigenize my way of thinking” and wise up a little more every day, by listening more deeply, especially to the voices that have been silenced – for the wisdom we might have learned all along.
I found a note from my brother while rummaging around in my office the other day – a Christmas gift tag from twenty years ago that I’d tucked carefully in a folder of my earnest creative writing efforts, sensing some powerful incantatory magic in the 6 words he’d scribbled to me in his craggy writing. My younger brother, who was skipping school while I nerded it up on the debate team. Who worked as a carnie instead of going to University. Who raided my book shelf when he went west to work underground in a mine, and plowed through The Odyssey and the Iliad and a host of other books I’d had just to look smart, but never actually read.
Think long term. Not short term, read the note. Chase your dreams.
I laughed when I saw it, because it’s funny to implode a family myth – a powerful academic bias had declared me to be the advanced one when, in so many ways, he’s been way ahead all along.
Long-term thinking is something I’m finally getting around to.
The Women’s March is happening this weekend. That means a year has passed since millions of people responded to Donald Trump’s words and actions and election with an outraged, creative, “are you freaking kidding me” uprising. The outrage has continued. The “are you freaking kidding me” moments have continued. This weekend the marching returns.
Six weeks after that remarkable global Women’s March, Rebecca Solnit, the writer who introduced the world to “mansplaining”, wrote a piece in the Guardian about sustaining hope, and why succumbing to despair is not an option. Answer: because the true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation.
“The most important effects are often the most indirect,” she wrote.
Some things take a long time to incubate. Our human calculus for tracking cause and effect is too feeble to account for them. Even the biggest supercomputer couldn’t track the ways influence, inspiration, motivation and change happen, unfurl, irregardless of geographical or time constraints. As Solnit concluded, this happens because we are an indivisible world in which everything matters.
This is the inspirational takeaway I’m rambling my way towards: You have no idea how you are inspiring and changing the world. But you are. That is a guarantee. Perhaps it’s worth putting some thought into how, in what ways, to what greater end? And as my wise little bro said, think long term, not short term.
This goes against the grain, and might take some practice. We live in a culture where the narrative is centred on winning and losing, immediate gratification and now, now, now.
But that is not actually the way of “the world”, the natural world, where time moves on a different scale entirely.
In the Secret Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben explained that trees emit electrical signals – when under attack by insects, for example – that are not “transmitted in the milliseconds, as human signals are; instead the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute.” Maybe that explains why forests are calming, have been shown to measurably decrease blood pressure. Maybe some kind of communication, or attunement, is taking place, when we “forest-bathe” and the trees are slowing us down to match their slow pulsing messages, drawing us into a deeper calm.
In the picture book, A Rock is Lively, by Dianna Hutts Aston wrote: “A rock doesn’t hurry. Over thousands of millions of years, it changes from one form, to another. In a process called erosion, a rock is squashed and scraped by glaciers, whirled by waves and rain, and pushed deep into the earth until it turns into magma. Then a rock is once again…”
There are so many different time spans unfolding around us, simultaneously. I wonder what would happen if we changed the timeline we think we’re operating on, to think beyond our lunchtimes, or our lifetimes, both of which I’ve always found to be frustratingly short. Not to think like a tree, or a rock, but to think like an ancestor.
The futurist, Alex Steffen, has been writing about this. Humanity is a continuity, he says. “The healthiest societies and the greatest generations are those that add (and leave) the most. We have inherited the far-largest portion of our wealth from our ancestors. We have responsibilities to leave behind as good a world as we can. We need to reinvent the present in order to pass on as great as possible a range of options to the future. That need is what gives urgency and a wild permission to those who seek to reimagine the world.”
There is a long tail to our actions. Ripple effects that move out beyond our own sightlines. I find this weirdly empowering. It gives me permission to pursue my own creative ambitions, because in this long view, they’re actually so small and insignificant, that it’s not audacious or cheeky of me to dream of a byline in the Walrus magazine, or a couple of books to my name. It’s just something fun to work towards in this little blip of time I have.
The more important stuff is to make sure I am contributing in leaving behind as in-tact a planet as possible. To take up my responsibility to generations far down the track. To start, immediately, thinking, not like a consumer, or a woman, or a neurotic writer, but as an ancestor.
There will always be heartbreak interjecting in our lives… new CEOs who don’t care to take the time to understand our town, cultural shifts that are disruptive, newspapers folding and favourite stores closing, there will floods and fires and heat-waves and bad snow years and erratic unstable world leaders to distract us, disturb us, destablize our days, and make us wail and moan and genuinely fear a nuclear holocaust. And it’s good to be present, and feel those things, and push back and march and and hold people accountable.
But as Courtney Martin wrote, in a wonderful manifesto, once you’ve felt that stuff – all the hard things and all the “inexplicable things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption” – then it’s time to focus. Focus on creating, she urges.
The wild re-imagining of the world.
Whether you’ve spawned actual children or not is irrelevant. We are all the ancestors of the world the future will inherit. We are designing, consuming, or regenerating it, as we speak.
What will your legacy be?