Dr. Luis Fernando Sarango Macas, who visited Keene two weeks ago to participate in the Keene State College symposium on sustainability, is an indigenous man from the Saraguro peoples of Ecuador. I had the pleasure and honor of hosting him for a week, and one of the most interesting concepts he shared with me is the indigenous way of perceiving of time and our connection with the ancestors.
The indigenous view of time is not linear and unidirectional, like the Euro-centric vision. We have been taught to think of time as a number line shaped like a straight arrow. Extending to the left are the so-called “negative” numbers and – in a manner of speaking – the historic past. To the right are increasingly “positive” numbers, like the future ostensibly stretching just ahead of us.
In contrast, the indigenous people perceive of time as a spiral, and we reside in the middle, at the center of this dynamic spiral. Above us is the cosmos; below the infra-world: both of these realms are a part of us, and we are a part of them.
What I found most interesting in this concept is that the spiral behind us, literally at our back, is “what is to come”, the so-called future from a Western point of view. And the spiral in front of us is “what has taken place,” it is the realm of the ancestors. This is so because the ancestors have walked the path ahead of us and thus opened the way for us.
This view of the so-called future behind us (as the unknown) and the ancestors in front of us as our lineage has had a profound impact in the way I now perceive of myself in the world. With Dr. Sarango Macas’ prodding, I have been trying an experiment: every morning upon awakening, I visualize my ancestors in front of me, leading and helping me. And I thank them.
The truth is that I have been working for some time with the energies of my ancestors, but until now I have tended to perceive them as “up there” or “beyond this realm.” Dr. Sarango Macas told me that “when we Indians talk about our ancestors, it is not some imaginary concept. We really see them in front of us and consider that they are part of our community, an important part.”
To re-conceptualize my vision of my own ancestors, I have had to learn more about some of them. On my father’s side, I knew neither grandparent as they both passed on before I was born. And my father never spoke about his family, and did not get along with his sole brother Richard.
Unexpectedly, a short time before Dr. Sarango Macas’ visit, I got a strange email that said in bold letters “THIS IS NOT SPAM.” When I opened it, I found out it was from a lawyer on the West Coast whose wife was the daughter of Richard’s second wife. And Richard had lived with them for a few years until his death. I asked this kind man what my uncle was like, and I learned for the first time how Richard used to go into Poland during the Cold War to rescue orphans to bring to the U.S. for adoption. He used his savings as a professor to finance these trips, and even when he was once robbed by KGB agents, he returned again and again to help provide a better future for these young children who had no parents of their own. I was told how he was always helping people, especially children.
Several generations before, on my father’s side, an Andrew Stephenson was a young boy in Ireland during the potato famine. Somehow he ended up on a boat and became an indentured servant in Canada. One day, he managed to escape over the border into the United States. On ancestry.com, I can’t trace this family line any farther. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a young and hungry boy to have to survive such an odyssey.
Every day now I try to see Andrew Stephenson walking in front of me, a little ahead of my Uncle Richard, who helped bring young and hungry children to the United States to loving homes two generations later. I sense more deeply how their lives paved the way for me to be right where I am right now, and doing what I do. It has been a beautiful and powerful learning experience for me.
Why don’t you try it yourself?