We have moved into the season of the spirits, including the Ancestors. True to form the past few days have been dark and chill. We’ve had enough rain to raise the rivers but perhaps not enough to replenish our greatly stressed aquifer.
The news of the past many weeks has been grim and that has impacted clients, friends, and family deeply. There seems no bottom to the depths politicians and their supporters are willing to fall, nor of the damage they are content to heap on others. It is as if everyone has forgotten that the harm we do to others inevitably comes back on us.
Awakening this morning from a fitful sleep I wondered how much of our current collective distress arises from our culture’s complete disregard for the spirits of place and our Ancestors. I remembered that ignored and forgotten spirits, especially Ancestors, have long been associated with difficult times. One of my teachers said that we put out offerings, sing, dance, and remember so the spirits don’t get hungry and begin to eat us, especially our children, do they don’t roam the world filled with malice and hardened by an all-consuming desire for food and acknowledgement.
I believe it is less the suffering of individual spirits that makes their hunger so dangerous, although individual spirits can no doubt do much harm. Rather, it is the collective desperation and malice of the forgotten that brings suffering and ruin.
How do those hungry spirits consume us? They encourage us to place short-term gain over the long-term good of all beings. They whisper in our ears, suggesting we let children and elders go hungry and without healthcare. They offer us beguiling visions of wealth and war, cajoling us to dream of power divorced from responsibility for others. They encourage us to ignore the consequences of our actions and spread misery far and wide. Surely they must influence us in innumerable ways.
I struggle to understand our collective refusal to acknowledge the spirits, including Ancestors. Certainly here in the West much damage was done by our inability to find balance following the Reformation. There is simply no place for the spirits in a world driven by fervent capitalistic materialism, just as there was no room for them in so-called Communist ideology. As a culture we are addicted to the belief that only that which we can see and measure is real, a position that leaves us vulnerable to that which we do not know.
Still, I suspect that the majority of us have had interactions with departed loved ones, although we may hold those events close for safe keeping. I wonder why it is so difficult for us to generalize those experiences and imagine a world filled with spirits, most of whom crave remembrance and acknowledgement, who ache for us to recognize that we literally owe our lives to them. In contrast, I am reminded of the many temples in Hong Kong where Ancestors, the spirits of the land, and the gods are remembered and embraced. These temples and shrines are filled with incense, prayers, and offerings, made more in remembrance than supplication.
As we approach the Days of the Dead and winter holidays beyond, let’s remember that the spirits and Ancestors are nearby, that the fabric that for much of the year may keep us and the spirits further apart is thinner and more permeable now. This is a good time to express gratitude to them, and to offer what we may to sooth those spirits who are in great distress. Perhaps our caring for the spirits, and each other, can make a difference in a world that seems increasingly divided and mad.