Embracing Your Past Can Help Soothe the Present

Our ancestors sailed off only to fight new battles

Suffering runs deep in the history of humankind. Realizing that can be good therapy. Emotional pain is not unique to your time or self. So when modern society pulls your spirit down, perhaps embracing the past will provide comfort.

I know a woman who after divorce lived with a despairing mood for a few years. Facing life single in her fifties was no fun. Then she started visiting locations of her ancestral past, and that appeared to help. I understood this one summer morning, watching her slip that little car into reverse and back away from her suburban house.

A devoted schoolteacher, she always spoke from a strict mind, but her chipmunk cheeks attested to a pardoning personality. More and more, though, any laughter sounded muffled, the grins less broad than a decade earlier, each facial expression cast forth conservatively to keep wrinkles from deepening. She often bluntly said, “I wasted my younger years on the wrong man.”

Feeling unfortunate is simply bad for anyone. It can even cause health problems such as weight gain or loss, as well as the loneliness. Some sufferers might seek peace in narcotics or alcohol. Others, as was her situation, instead see work as the escape, though a temporary one.

She would chat with me about new curriculum, grading papers, bullying or funding woes. But mostly it was the students. You could hear her satisfaction in guiding students past the pits and snares of growing up in broken homes, early pregnancies or forays into vandalism. She admired their determination, appreciating that people who are going through hell wish there could be something better. She believed they truly needed her, and that provided solace. But when school let out, the weeks of idleness allowed the unhappy feeling to take over again.

This existed until she decided to drive off for the Eastern Shore that summer. I imagine her easing the four-cylinder compact into the beltway flow, settling into the middle-right lane. Bright songs were another short comfort for her. Turning the radio dial, she would find the rumba and bossa-nova tunes played on organs. She’d likely be passed by big rigs, bearded men resting huge forearms on rolled-down windows. Smiling, they’d mimic her bobbing to the music. Exiting away from the city’s rush hour, her car putters across the long bridge that spans the zillion-spangled Chesapeake Bay. She passes through green-blue communities of cornfields and sailboat marinas.

In the 1600s, an English trading ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean and sailed up the Chesapeake into the Potomac River. After a long voyage, the group of gentlemen, wives, planters, indentured servants and missionaries developed the first colonial settlement of Maryland. They came for profit, adventure, religion, but mostly to find freedom. One of these passengers was her direct ancestor, who died there in a war with Native Americans. Stopping, she visits the historic town, walking among ruins and restorations and watching the woodland tribal reenactments.

Turning later into the pines and sand driveway of what will be her summer home, she parks with a gravel sound. I imagine her sitting there thinking. … She had gone there to escape, only to realize that her freedom-seeking ancestors had tried the same thing and ended up fighting battles against Indians.

Each school break since, she continued making that passage to the coastal lands and heritage sites where her people had first learned how to live. I think it helped her see that surviving is a process where you have to keep healing.