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.

My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 2

ScannedImageRecently I was going through some old files when I found a back issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review, with an article about my dad on the front page. Back in 2003, the periodical had taken notice of a “silent dialogue” he’d started about a controversial subject.

I remember it well. When his sign protesting the war met with surreptitious changes, altering its meaning, his response was characteristic of him as both a mental health worker and a Mennonite. Instead of shutting down, he sought more engagement.

In late winter of 2003, the US-led invasion of Iraq prompted Dad to place a sandwich board sign in the front yard. One side read “The Nations Say No to War” and the other said “The Whole World is Watching.” (Originally he’d worn this placard at a protest march.)

At some point that spring, someone took a pen to these antiwar sentiments, flipping the meaning with the addition of a few letters.

ScannedImage-2Dad didn’t get mad. Instead, he decided to invite passersby to participate in the commentary. He posted a blank sign, attached a permanent marker, and waited. The sign became an anonymous forum for the neighborhood to share a range of deep feelings about war.

Back in the day, at Goshen College, we had the opinion board, where anyone could scribble their random two cents. Entertaining, enlightening, enraging at times, the content was a freewheeling snapshot of campus controversies and dilemmas. Dad’s more targeted opinion board showed the diverse positions among his neighbors: concern for slain children, desire to stand behind both military and government, gratitude for free speech, comparison to Vietnam, prayers for peace, and so on.

The safety of that anonymous pen reminds me a bit of today’s comment threads online, where faceless speakers can quickly turn meanspirited. For the most part in Dad’s case, the discussion was civil, though passions were clearly high. He posted a thank-you note after the white space was full to the edges, and took the sign down.

After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011, he began to go through decades of accumulated belongings and papers. We searched for the yard signs in the basement, but they didn’t turn up, and I’m not sure there are any photographs. I was happy to find this somewhat crumpled record of his bridge-building efforts.

ScannedImage-3I lost a precious father and friend upon his death, and my family will never be the same. But this clipping reminds me that the wider community is also poorer for his absence.

The Quiet in the Land Gets Loud

Mom had a dream in which I was kidnapped in South America and she spent her retirement money to find me. When found, I had grown so accustomed to living among the jungle people, I didn’t understand why I should keep my breasts covered.

I asked her, are you worried about me exposing myself, perhaps through this new blog? She didn’t think so.

But it’s a perfectly legitimate concern, one I deal with all the time in my own head as I try to rise to the occasion here. My cultural background is Mennonite, and there are a lot of prohibitions against standing out. My Amish forebears were “the quiet in the land,” the “plain people.”

And though less strict than the Amish, Mennonites are still big on humility. We aren’t supposed to shine too much, or get too high on ourselves, or in general stick our necks out too much. There’s safety in the tribe, in being like everyone else.

Lancaster County Amish 02

By it:Utente:TheCadExpert (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, being “plain” in the Amish sense means that even while everyone looks the same within the tribe, you stand out against the larger culture in a big way. Your dress, your home, your whole way of life is a rebuke of the world’s fancy-yet-empty ways.

Nonconformism is in fact one of the central tenets of the Anabaptist faith, and I absorbed that ethic as a Mennonite child. To be in the world but not of the world—that was the ideal.

Which may be why I naturally view the dominant culture with a critical eye.

Recently I read Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, and it showed me that we all need to be leaders now. It helped me to take my place as such, to step into this somewhat uncomfortable role. Writing is the gift I have to offer, so I write in service of the world I want to manifest–even if it means going against the ancestral voices that tell me to keep my head down.

Over the last several years I’ve led groups in various successful community endeavors, such as the Irvington SkillShare. So claiming “leadership” shouldn’t be such a stretch, but somehow it still is. (As a teen I heard my peers talk about attending “leadership camp,” and I knew I’d sooner tear my toenails out one by one than do such a thing. Leadership was for kids with confidence. Kids who didn’t mind speechifying. Kids who didn’t need to be humble.)

But there’s an urgency about this time, a sense that we need all hands on deck. We can’t afford to shirk that responsibility out of an ingrained belief that it’s dangerous to stick our necks out. We can’t afford “I’m not enough, I’m just a dumb /fill in the blank/.”

Enough of that. It’s time to get in the game. Let the “quiet in the land” get loud.

What’s your gift, and how are you becoming the leader we need today?