We Did Not Make Ourselves: Quotes About Ancestors

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Editor’s Note:

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The holiday Día de los Muertos, occurring in the days just following Halloween, invites participants to remember and pay tribute to the dead, doing what we can to ease their passage in the afterlife. This kind of ancestral awareness isn’t as common in most anglo American customs, and the spiritual aspects of Halloween (as the night when spirits can roam the earth) have long since fallen by the wayside.

However, it’s still common in many cultures around the world to maintain ongoing relationships with those who came before us – feeding them, talking to them, asking them for guidance. When’s the last time you reached out to yours?

The following quotes are drawn from authors of numerous cultures who urge us to trace the continuity between the living and the dead, whether as a spiritual practice or simply a way of understanding our own place in the world – how we got here, who we became, and what we’re likely to leave behind.

Alice Walker, “In These Dissenting Times” from Revolutionary Petunias: And Other Poems, 1973
“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps, to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love, and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrows, is always a measure of what has gone before.”

Raquel Cepeda, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, 2013
“More than anything, this place feels familiar…I quietly thank this ancestor of mine for surviving the trip so that I could one day return.”

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”

L.M. Montgomery, Emily Climbs, 1925
“No one can be free who has a thousand ancestors.”

Amin Maalouf, Orígenes, 2004
“Our ancestors derived less from life than we do, but they also expected much less and were less intent on controlling the future. We are of the arrogant generations who believe a lasting happiness was promised to us at birth. Promised? By whom?”

Liam Callanan, The Cloud Atlas, 2004
“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.”

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox, 2011
“He honestly expected her to believe that she could make a bad offering and her ancestors wouldn’t mind.”

Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins, 1946
“The loneliness of the spirit-world is the dead man’s greatest excuse for desiring the company of his descendants.”

Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices, 1941
“We cannot shake off three hundred years of fear in three hours.”

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, 1936
“We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living, 2017
“Breathing in, I see all my ancestors in me: my mineral ancestors, plant ancestors, mammal ancestors, and human ancestors. My ancestors are always present, alive in every cell of my body, and I play a part in their immortality.”

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