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In the West we have a hard time wrapping our heads around the Buddhist idea that each of us carries our ancestors around with us. We understand that we couldn’t have been born without our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on. But the Western idea of individual freedom always takes over when we think about our own lives, blocking full understanding of just how much our thoughts, beliefs, and actions are molded by people who have long since passed away. We like to believe that we are the captains of our own ships.

But let’s take a baby I know. She’s a little older than a year old now. For the first few months of life her parents received a great deal of help from an elderly couple, who flew in from a foreign country to ease their transition into parenthood. They didn’t speak any English. They took great care of her, loved her, protected her, and encouraged her personality to burst forth while important plastic changes were occurring in her brain. They constantly spoke to her in their own language. She was a very happy baby that felt loved from the very beginning of her life. Eventually they had to return to their home country.

The next time she meets her grandparents she will probably not recognize them or have any recollection that they cared for her during those important first few months of life. Yet she will be speaking two languages and they are a huge part of why. She’s always smiling and happy, and they are a huge part of why. We can draw a direct line between her life right now and her experiences with them, but for her it is as if these experiences never occurred. They helped shape who she is, who she will become, and what she will pass on to others.

This is a concrete example of a truth that envelops every single one of us. We might not be consciously aware of how our ancestors and in fact all of humanity shaped and molded us, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. The way to validate them and infuse their lives with meaning is to live great lives, to find personal meaning in our work and relationships, and to pass on the very best of ourselves. Our success is their success, and we can only hope that future generations do the same for us.