Most of us in America, whether we choose to admit it or not, are heavily influenced by questionable western/European values and ideas. This includes our notions of body image, beauty, style, health, love, religion, etc. This is a painful reality to acknowledge, for it means the circumference of our lives, definitions, expectations, decisions and therefore – outcomes are not of our own choosing. This especially is difficult when we consider the high levels of stress, poverty, illness, failure, disappointment and dysfunction we endure as a result of our conditioning. I want to explore just a fraction of our ignorance and contradictions surrounding our interactions with people in our lives.
Take for example, the western view of death and spirits. We are taught either to believe
that people die in a final and complete sense, or that their spirits ascend to a heaven or hell where we no longer have access to them. Popular movies depict deceased spirits as traumatized and dangerous “ghosts” bent on scaring or harming us. On another level, the ancient African practice of honoring and communicating with recent or long-gone ancestors earns ridicule as such “occult” practices constitute “witchcraft” or pagan rituals.
So we trudge through life disconnected from our deceased relatives or friends, believing they are disinterested in our affairs or unable to advise and comfort us even if they did care to. Even if we have dreams of these people, or “see” them, we discount them as coincidental occurrences or hallucinations.
We compound matters by refusing to acknowledge their LIVING and POSITIVE influence in our real-time lives. Religious authorities and teachings facilitate our ambivalence and fear toward both death and our ancestors through rigid and primitive pronouncements of hell and the afterlife. Bear with me as I present another perspective.
I do not believe that people receive eternal punishment or joy based on an incident-by-incident accounting of their lives. The true eternal “hell” exists in our daily lives as our continued failure to learn, confront, forgive and evolve leads to our continued suffering and dysfunction. “Heaven” exists to the degree that our evolved thinking and actions produce genuine feelings and/or experiences of joy, fulfillment and purpose. None of these experiences are absolute or permanent, as we and our experiences constantly change and are semi-dependent on outside people and circumstances.
Permanent feelings of happiness would likely make us spoiled, feel falsely entitled and un-equipped to deal with challenges and conflicts. Permanent suffering would likely make us jaded, feel incorrigible and indifferent. Clearly, we were meant( in our Earthly existence) to experience joy and suffering in cyclical fashion, because this is the only way we truly understand and appreciate both and the only way we truly evolve.
Upon physical death I believe our bodies return to the natural elements of wind, earth and sea, but I also believe that our energy remains after physical death, becoming what we usually refer to as spirits. These spirits are neither indifferent or inaccessible to us. On the contrary, our deceased loved ones want to comfort us and inform us that they are ok. They want us to get on with our lives, rather than dying slowly through grief and isolation. They want us to draw inspiration and lessons from their living example. They want us to actively remember them and invoke their names. I believe our ancestors are interested in our earthly affairs and that they actively work to protect us and advise us. The problem is that we remember them only in passing when we gaze at their picture or on their day of birth or death. And even then we don’t incorporate their words and deeds into our daily lives. In essence, WE kill them by refusing to acknowledge their ongoing spiritual presence despite their physical departure. Ironic, isn’t it?
Because I don’t see my deceased loved ones as being “dead and gone,” I invoke their memories. For example, anyone that knows me well will tell you about the countless times I repeat my dad’s advice (“My father used to say”….) for all who will listen. I believe he is concerned about me and that he wants me to be happy and remember him.
This explains why he comes to not only me, but to my cousin and love interests over the years in dreams. In one dream, he pulled my girlfriend aside and directed her attention to a
book he held. It was a scrapbook of my pictures and accomplishments. And while he didn’t speak, she got the distinct impression that he was extremely proud of me, that he loved me, and that he wanted her to share his sentiments. My cousin had a dream about my father. They spoke to each other across a low fence or gate. He seemed to be at peace. She asked him to come over to her side, but he replied that he couldn’t. He indicated that he was well, and asked about me. A week later, my dad died. Just last week, my father appeared to me in a dream. He held in his hands a bunch of my school files and papers I’d written and appeared to be very upset about something related to my education. Just in those dreams, my father demonstrated his interest in my life and communicated his love for me. He wants me to know he’s well, and that I shouldn’t worry about him. He wants me to know that he’s concerned about me, that he’s immensely proud of me, and that he believes my last grad school experience was hostile and unfair to me.
But I too don’t fully seize opportunities to involve my ancestors into my life or invoke their spirits. I’m sure that some of you reading this regard your ancestors as being absent from your life, and powerless to intervene on your behalf. Interestingly, our ancestors don’t speak to us through dreams, but through living people.
When our wise mentors told us something, we (hopefully) discarded our egos and LISTENED to them. Even when such people departed, (since energy is not destroyed) their spirits manifested in the form of living friends, lovers, and relatives in our lives.Did you ever meet someone with deep wisdom or insight that reminded you of a deceased friend or relative?That helps you laugh through the pain? Someone that helps you think better and whose advice empowers you? Someone that helps you understand the whys and hows of life? Someone that smiles, laughs or behaves in ways reminiscent of a departed loved one? If so, did you ever stop to think your beloved ancestor speaks through them, reassuring, consoling, and advising you? Or, that your rejection of their counsel is also a rejection of the ancestor you love and respect?
The lessons here are hopefully clear: It is not enough to remember our departed on special days, nor to keep our memories of them bottled up in a cold, stale urn filled with their ashes, a rarely viewed collection of faded pictures, a wrinkled obituary, or a somber annual visit to their grave. We are called to regularly invoke their names and spirits, actively utilize and add onto their wisdom, and recognize their infinite love for us. Far too often, we proclaim our respect and love for a deceased loved one yet consistently fail to actively embody their lessons, communicate with them, or recognize them inspiring, challenging, intervening and speaking to us in real-time through a song, scripture, dream or living person! These kind, gentle and loving spirits are always around us in a spiritual sense, and forever within us in a genetic or biological sense. Hence, perhaps it is not they who abandoned us, but WE who’ve abandoned them.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.