Tearing Up an Ancestral Contract

I woke up thinking about that beloved quote we see so many different places: “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” Attributed falsely to Nelson Mandela, the words are part of a beautiful passage by Marianne Williamson.

I realize now that I took that quote to heart, but not really into my being. I thought I understood it. I aspired to it. But recently I’ve been reviewing my ancestral contracts and commitments. I see more clearly now the ways I’ve limited myself.

I was raised Mennonite. Few would think it to look at me (and no one would guess it from my Sunday morning routine). But Mennonite-ness is a key part of my identity.

In many ways I don’t feel very far removed from that heritage—nor from my Amish forebears. Recently my spouse and I watched a PBS show about the Amish. We kept nudging each other: Yep. That’s us! (She descends from the same “plain people.”)

By Gadjoboy, via Wikimedia Commons

By Gadjoboy, via Wikimedia Commons

But what about these contracts I’m reviewing? Well, we Anabaptists are a humble people; that’s one of our main things. (Sometimes I think we’re pretty darn proud of our humility!)

And there is something to be said for taking a self-effacing approach to life. The world is full of braggadocio. Who needs it? Why not modestly go about our work? Actions speak louder than words, and all that.

I embrace many agreements stemming from my heritage. I value simplicity, stewardship, and nonconformity: carving a path that’s different from the mainstream.

But in our purported humility’s case, it seems that something unhelpful hitched a ride on that value. It’s a habit of self-effacement so extreme that it abnegates many of our gifts.

What do we have to offer, who are we to say, why would anyone care what we think?

Quick story: On more than one occasion, I heard my dad refer to himself as a “dumb Amishman.” (He said this jokingly—he was never really Amish, though his father had been.)

Related story: Sometimes I assist my spouse in whapping something together—perhaps reusing some wire and twine to make a garden trellis or the like. And one of us will quip, while surveying our finished product: “Not bad for a couple of Amish girls.”

Raised beds Judy and Dad made from reclaimed materials.

Raised beds Judy and Dad made from reclaimed materials.

It’s funny, and it speaks to the beautiful ingenuity that our forebears cultivated. But it also smacks of a self-doubt passed down for generations.

Our gifts have been buried under an avalanche of inherited beliefs about who we are and who we can never be. We run from the limelight. We say yes to too many tasks, making it impossible to complete our real assignment on earth. We keep our dreams under wraps.

At some point this unspoken agreement with our ancestors simply no longer serves.

I’m sure most people face ancestral contracts rooted in our ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Perhaps it’s time to bring these agreements to light. We can decide for ourselves whether to sign on the dotted line—or whether to tear the contracts up.

7 thoughts on “Tearing Up an Ancestral Contract

  1. Beautiful. I was just discussing these ‘ancestral contracts’ with a good friend yesterday (though we were using different terminology), and the ways in which life/ family/ society throw so many things in our path, it can become difficult to remember what we came here to do. This is an excellent reinforcement of those ideas, and good grist for the mill, as they say. Thank you.

  2. Seems like you may have another choice besides sign or shred. If the contract has no time limit of viability maybe you could leave it on the table until judgment day. 🙂
    –Dan

  3. Lovely read … thought-provoking and touching. In a similar way, I see the human path as very close to this – going through epic journeys to conquer our smallness and finally, at long last, own our Divine heritage and brilliance. How dare we? Who are we to … fill in the blank. We are unlimited power, love and potential.

  4. Pingback: No More “Long Hard Slog” | Shawndra Miller

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