The Wisdom of the Ages
Honoring Your Heritage on Your Spiritual Journey
23 and Me, the test kit that assesses your DNA for your ancestral heritage, became even more popular during the pandemic. The company announced that they grew in the 1st quarter of 2021, due largely to the lockdowns that kept people home and away from their normal routines.
The story about 23 and Me’s growth is bigger than “I’m bored so I’m gonna test my DNA.” The wisdom is found in the sacred pause the pandemic gifted us if we accepted its invitation to be still…
If someone told us at the beginning of 2020 that here in 2022 we would still be dealing with this, many of us would find that hard to believe. Our lives have been unimpeded and uninterrupted by outside influences for so long, we actually believed that we were in control.
No, we are not even remotely in control. This pandemic became the uninvited guest who, without knocking, burst through the front door, plopped down on the couch and now is refusing to leave. Its presence disrupts the normalcy in our lives and the sanctuary of our homes, forcing us to discover new ways to be entertained, find comfort or to simply rest.
When the pandemic is viewed in this way, it makes perfect sense that people seek understanding in who they are through the lens of their ancestors, because looking forward is too exhausting and frustrating.
Our ancestral heritage is often told and retold by the older generations. When those relatives die, the void extends beyond the lack of their presence — their stories die with them. I can remember each and every word of a few of the stories my grandmothers shared with me. Sadly, others sit on the edges of my memory just out of reach. The details are murky with names of ancestors and their relation to me now forgotten. Admittedly, I wasn’t as attentive as I could have been while they spoke. My pre-teen mind was distracted by the Jackson Five, my latest Nancy Drew mystery, and the Brady Bunch.
I’ve heard it said, “I wish I had paid closer attention to those stories they told”. I share that sentiment, even while here in my 61st year of life, I still miss my grandmothers who left years ago, their presence being such a huge part of my own story.
The gifts of our ancestors are easy to miss when life distracts us and the confidence of youth fools us into believing that we are in control and have all the time in the world.
One day we find out none of that is true. It’s simply a ruse, and it took an event so big that the ground beneath us shook. We came face-to-face with the reality that anything, at any moment, could be taken away from us, and the precious gifts of time and presence are all that truly matter.
If we were honest with ourselves, we had hints that our lives were fragile houses of cards. It only took one glitch to disrupt our illusion and snap us back to reality. Just ask anyone who has searched in total darkness for the flashlight tucked in the back of the drawer when the electricity abruptly fails.
Technology goes silent, and people gather around the gift of light offered by the candle, that before today, merely sat on the table for decoration. Now it is the beacon that holds the space while people sit and wonder when normalcy may return.
On a much larger scale, the pandemic became that “electricity-is-out-now-what-do-we-do” moment. A pause long enough for many of us to reconsider goals and contemplate their lives outside the construct of what they thought they had created.
What am I going to do with the time I have left on this earth?
Where do I see myself in 5, 10 or 15 years?
How did my life become so unrecognizable from what I thought it really was?
How do I want to be remembered?
And, indicated by the increased sales of 23 and Me, many of us asked,
“Where did I come from?”
Curiosity and boredom may be why some ordered a DNA test. Others, however, accepted the invitation of the pause to consider these questions and make drastic changes to their lives, leading to the season that has been called “the great resignation.” Critics of this phenomenon assert that people who didn’t want to work took advantage of government-funded financial incentives to reimagine life without a job.
I say that’s closed-minded thinking from people intent on holding on to a life that no longer exists — the one where a subset of our population must be resigned to live from paycheck to paycheck so you remain comfortable with the cost of goods you consume.
From where I stand, I see people reimagining their lives and working harder on entrepreneurial endeavors, returning to school to elevate their careers, and downsizing everything in their lives to consume less, and therefore live more affordably.
In other words, instead of being annoyed by the unavoidable collision of life-interrupted by a life-interrupting pandemic, they welcomed this unknown guest into their presence and paused to ask, “Who am I? Where am I going, and where have I come from?”
Sitting on my desk right now are the 23 and Me DNA test kits for my husband and I. We will be sending them off soon and then await their return to discover answers to our “where have I come from?” There are pieces of my story that I know through my family. I know I come from a lineage of preachers. One of my mentors once told me I am finishing the work they began. I like to believe that is true. Still other elements of my story and my ancestral heritage are unknown, and I hope to find answers hidden within my DNA.
I’ve witnessed others share their stories as they too embrace this season of powerful change and look to connect with the unknown elements of their life’s story hidden in their DNA. My seminary sister and colleague here at Numa Soul, Rev. Arda will be traveling to ancestral lands this year to connect with her heritage in a sacred and meaningful way. I’ve been honored to listen to the stories she shared of her ancestors. The call of her people resonates so deeply with her that traveling to these places will no doubt answer questions for her that can not be understood unless they are experienced.
In her own words, she shares why this is meaningful to her:
Borne of sufis and shamans.
If you’ve ever been on my IG page, you may have seen that in my bio. And while it’s only the tip of the iceberg, it’s an important part of my identity.
I am the progeny of survivors of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
This was multiple generations and not so long ago – the most recent victims, my mother, her siblings, and my grandparents.
Like the Uyghur Muslims today, western history ignored the atrocities committed against the indigenous, Karachay people of the Caucuses by Stalin in 1943 and before that, the Circassian genocide led by Czar Alexander II and the Russian empire in the 1800’s.
And, like many survivors, my mother never spoke of her experience.
I do, however, know first-hand the effects of generational trauma. This is partially what drives me to do the work I do today.
However, there is more to my story.
I descend from ancient people of the Great Steppe. My Turkic ancestry spans across Asia from Mongolia down to Mesopotamia, up through the Caucasus into Anatolia.
My people were warriors, both men and women.
You know us as the Amazons of Greek mythology but our graves lie in the Caucasus mountains where we lived among our tribes.
We were Alans, an Iranian nomadic, pastoral people described as war-like and known for our cavalry and to classical writers of the first centuries CE, such as Seneca and Ptolemy.
We were Mongol-Manchurians and Kipchaks, part of Berke Khan’s (Genghis Khan’s grandson) Golden Horde.
And we were Ottomans, the empire that ruled the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa for more than 600 years.
We were Tengrists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Orthodox Christians and most recently, Muslims.
My history is rich, diverse, and indeed, the stuff of legends.
Today, I am a Humanist but I cherish and celebrate the customs and rituals of my people, even if I don’t share their religious beliefs.
I find tremendous personal power in that.
Why is this important?
Because this life of mine is a culmination of their hopes and dreams.
It is their strength and fortitude that made me who I am and continues to sustain me.
At the most pivotal and significant moments of my life, I feel them at my back.
And on the day of my ordination, I wore a stole embroidered with Old Turkic Script at the nape to recognize and honor them.
This summer I’ll travel to Turkey, one of my ancestral homelands, not for vacation, but to answer a call I’ve had for a long time. A call that reached a fevered pitch as my spiritual work deepened over the past several years.
I had visited Turkey with my father as a child but this time is different – while I’ll be returning with him once again – it will be to scatter his remains. We’ll begin in Konya, the city of his birth, home of the Mevlevi Order and the final resting place of beloved Sufi poet, Rumi. We’ll work our way across the country, visiting spiritually and historically significant locations, and then finish in Istanbul, the bustling city on the Bosphorus where Europe and Asia meet and many of my relatives reside today. Next summer, I’ll travel to the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, through Central Asia and into the Caucasus to continue my pilgrimage of ancestral, cultural and spiritual discovery.
I say this with the utmost sincerity and seriousness. Whoever you are, wherever you are from, seek out your history – your ancient history. It will provide you personal insight, clarity and inspiration in ways you could never have dreamed of – and if you are spiritually inclined, things will make sense in ways they never did before.
Take pride in your people.
Live a life of purpose and meaning that would make them proud by leaving this world better than you found it.
Keep them in your thoughts, close to your heart and honor them daily.
Remember that you are because they were.
Be a good ancestor by living such a life that those of your lineage will speak your name with reverence and pride.
Give them shoulders to stand upon.
You don’t have to wage war or conquer foreign lands.
Leave a legacy of radical compassion and kindness.
You are paving the way for what is to come.
Most importantly, no matter how different we may seem – our shared humanity is the tie that binds us together.
And sadly, we are overcome with a blinding, fearful ignorance that drives us to alienate or destroy anything that doesn’t look, live, love or believe the way we do.
Yet, history shows us that our greatest accomplishments and attributes stem from our unique cultures and beautiful diversities.
Work to build a just, equitable world reflective of that.
Your descendants will remember, honor and thank you for it.
Where have I come from?
Beloved, we all have a story — a story that reaches far back into a time when life looked nothing like it does now. Those whose shoulders upon which you now stand – whose names you’ll never know and faces you’ll never see – have wisdom for you. Wisdom that can only be heard when you pause…
Come. Let us gather around this sacred candle’s light and contemplate this and other questions together.
There’s healing for us there.
In honor of Rev. Arda’s journey to her homeland, I offer one of Rumi’s popular writings called, “The Guest House.” It’s perfect as we consider how we embrace change and the unexpected in our lives. Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi was a Persian poet, Sufi mystic and Islamic theologian. The exact origin of Sufism, best described as Islamic mysticism, is disputed but was said to be in existence in the 7th century during the time of the Prophet Mohammed. The Mevlevi (Sufi) Order was founded in 1273 in what is known today as Konya, Turkey by Rumi’s followers. Millions around the world have been inspired by Rumi’s writings, but it is important that his Islamic beliefs not be minimized by disregarding his religious heritage.
It is also important to note that as with any ancient texts, some of Rumi’s original writings may have been mistranslated. What we have in English form is but an assumption of his original words.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.