How to Be a Good Ancestor

Read how learning from the seven generations who came before and will come after you can guide you to become a good ancestor.

It begins with a pouring out.

There is a small cart in my house. It is made of green-painted metal and supports two round brass trays, one at the top and another near the floor, each 16” in diameter. It has laughably been referred to as the “bar cart” for half-a-dozen years or so. The top shelf is crowded with several bottles of alcohol, each coated with a fine layer of dust. I gather them all, as well as anything I can find in the refrigerator, and stage them beside the sink. Here is what I end up with:

1/2 bottle of gin
3 1/2 bottles of whiskey
One full unopened bottle of tequila
2 airline-size bottles of whiskey (appropriately called “Writer’s Tears”)
2 cans and 4 bottles of beer

The caps come off and it all goes down the drain. It isn’t easy; I like the smell and it isn’t entirely cheap stuff either. It feels wasteful to dump it but that’s what I have decided to do. When I’m finished all that is left are some empty cans and bottles, a bottle opener fashioned from a deer antler, and two empty flasks. This melodramatic undertaking means I am finished with drinking, all an effort toward trying to become a good ancestor.

What does it even mean, to be “a good” ancestor? I think about it all the time, especially given the world my generation is poised to leave behind. Consider the Big Picture stuff, those global challenges like pandemic and climate change and white supremacy and colonialism. I know it’s standard procedure to blame the Boomers for our ecological and social messes, but I haven’t seen much being done by subsequent generations to address the downward spiral either. How many of us have significantly changed our lifestyles to prevent the world from becoming a post-apocalyptic hellhole? There is plenty of hand-wringing, lots of meme-sharing. But what about meaningful, direct action? What about demanding accountability not just from ourselves, but from elected officials we have presumably tasked to make the correct decisions on our behalf?

Perhaps it is our lifestyles that blind us. In a quote I grabbed via Twitter, the writer Kelsey McKinney sums it up nicely when she says, “Capitalism has so thoroughly corrupted people’s understanding of the world that they’re convinced that anything done for any reason besides profit or personal gain is suspect.”

Maybe it all feels pointless. Like we are already doomed, even irredeemable, so to hell with it. I know I’m nearly overwhelmed with despair sometimes. Grief over the earth’s rapidly changing climate and humanity’s apparent doubling-down on hate and divisiveness. Grief over how many of us mask our ignorance and fear with bravado, and seem to lack any interest in practicing simple kindnesses. I mean, why bother bucking the relentless tide when doing so just feels useless? I think of these huge challenges and it all seems impossible. And yet, I have to do something.

I am certain I am an alcoholic, despite never having been much of a drinker. I didn’t even start drinking beer until I was in my 30s, and I’ve never been much for harder stuff. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been really drunk; I need about half as many fingers from that tally to count the number of hangovers I’ve had. For someone my age in the circles I’ve lived most of my life in it’s really pretty amazing.

It is inside me, though. My dad was an alcoholic, as was his dad. Probably his before him. Not just my immediate family, but my broader Indigenous family. Alcohol has been a relentless scourge to my people from the moment rampaging colonialists realized it was an excellent weapon in the cold effort to cheat us of everything we have.

I like beer, mostly cheap stuff. I love a good dive bar and I hate trendy breweries. I appreciate good wine (I’m with the late writer Charles Bowden when he said, “I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color.”) and at times I’ve considered going all in as a wine snob, monthly subscription to a local wine club and all.

I’ve managed to avoid sliding down that slope. Growing up with an alcoholic as a parent has affected me in ways I never realized until I started poking at it with a stick. A certain wariness around booze, a distrust of people once they get into their cups that feels a little unreasonable when measured against other peoples’ reactions. The sadness I retreat into, and how I feel rejection when it seems alcohol is a more valuable friend to someone than I am. It is a substance that figures heavily in the social activities of pretty much all of my friends, in every community I am part of. And I either fake enjoying myself or feel left out.

It all came to a head in May when I was awarded a month-long writing residency in Colorado. It was glorious. I lived alone for 30 days, working and reflecting and wandering the area. There were others in my cohort, living in their separate spaces scattered around the small mountain town we had been invited to, and weekly we would get together informally. It struck me just how key a role alcohol played in these gatherings. I participated. I drank wine. Had a few beers, a couple shots of tequila. One of the other writers made it his mission to go to the local bar every day, and did so. His condition deteriorated dramatically over the course of the month. There were other outings I was invited to that I didn’t attend; they were always at bars. If I’d participated there too, I would certainly have ended up cramming what would have amounted to a typical year’s-worth of drinking in a single month. The results would have been devastating.

For most of the people I know, though, I don’t think this would have seemed excessive, or even unusual. It really didn’t seem to be for any of my companions. In the moment I felt a little prudish, and feared I would be viewed as judgmental toward my new friends if I didn’t participate. That wasn’t — isn’t — my intention. But it’s hard. I recognize now that being a good ancestor doesn’t necessarily mean being a particularly interesting friend to blow off steam with.

The Seventh Generation Principle is based allegedly on an ancient Haudenosaunee philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. There is discussion about how true that is, at least in the way we know it, but I don’t care much about the details. This philosophy speaks to vision, to looking at the long game, to being thoughtful about what we leave behind for our future generations to carry, and I like that.

But I like a slightly different version better: It is still a seven-generation span, but we — all of us as individuals — are situated in the middle. And in our actions we must consider the effect they would have on the three generations previous, as well as the three to come. That is easier for me to get my head around. It makes me think of the debt I owe to the people who came just before me and how my choices reflect on that debt, and also makes me consider what kind of example I want to leave for those to come in the near future. Three generations doesn’t span that much time, really. It makes the choices one makes more significant. It’s not impossible to eventually know, or to have known, people at either end of the span.

What kind of ancestor, what kind of person, would I be if I engage in an unnecessary diversion — drinking — that I know has ruined people, and families, and communities? In this I don’t even need to consider the wider world, but just my own immediate relations. And once I began to think about it, I realized I had to do it. For them, and for myself.

It’s a small change, my quitting drinking. I doubt anyone really cares, but it’s significant on a personal level. I don’t know if this is a permanent change or not, but it’s hard to imagine it isn’t. Maybe I can “handle” drinking; I have for my entire life. But maybe the “good ancestor” part means stopping to inspire others to never start in the first place. Or it means stopping in solidarity with the people who never could.

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