A few close friends came over for an early dinner. As is our custom, everyone left by 8:00 p.m. As the clock strikes 9:00, I am comfortably seated in the living room, dog at my feet, fire in the fireplace, soft music in the background, pillow on my lap with an open computer balanced on it, and a small shot of 12 year old scotch resting on the antique end table next to me. Nice evening. I will be asleep by 10:00, just as soon as I finish writing down a few thoughts. It is New Year’s Eve.
Not like earlier days, full of loud celebration shared with friends watching Dick Clark count down the seconds as the large sparkling mirrored ball in Time Square once again reached its final destination. We would sing Auld Lang Syne, hug and kiss family and friends, lift a toast to the days gone by, and welcome those to come. We celebrated time’s passage, a ritual that would go on year after year, forever. We were young after all and the future held nothing but promise.
For many, times have changed. The late author Charles Bowden wrote in his book, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing. Living in the Future, “I live in a time of fear and the fear is not of war or weather or death or poverty or terror. The fear is of life itself. The fear is of tomorrow, a time when things do not get better but become worse. This is the belief of my time. I do not share it.” Neither do I, Charles.
The past can indeed create fear of the future, failure. However, it may well bring hope, courage.
Glancing over to the corner of the room, my eyes fall on a gift I received from a friend who returned from Ghana, Africa–a cane with the handle in the shape of a Sankofa. I loved the cane but had no idea what a Sankofa was.
I soon learned the age old myth of the Sankofa originated with the Akan people of Ghana, West Africa. The Sankofa is a mythic bird whose neck is bent backwards while its feet face forward. It symbolizes movement from the past to now and into the future. The bird holds in its beak an egg encompassing gems of the past that will be brought forward to inform and bring hope to the future. Like the future, the egg is fragile, holding oft forgotten wisdom from the past. The egg holds insights incubated in memory, honed over time, but yet to be hatched into life. Perhaps the fear of failure, laziness, or the pain of loss and hurt associated with gaining wisdom have kept the contents in its shell. A past seldom if ever visited.
The mythical Sankofa challenges us to bring the gems of the past to the forefront raising questions that are often ignored such as: How did I get to this point? Why do I do what I do? What insights from the past do I need to carry into the future? What from the past, however difficult, do I need to face? What have I learned that can be shared with and helpful to others? How do I live the last stage of my life?
My past, as yours, has been filled with contradiction, full of meaningful and joyful events, and accompanied by moments of great loss and pain.
It is both exhilarating and terrifying to look back on the past. Experiences have both diminished and enhanced me. This is true in my individuality and yours, as well as in our community life together. Facing and bringing together the paradoxical sides of self lead to strength, flexibility, balance, and integrity. If the past is ignored, resented, or rationalized, depression and anger can rule the day. Like igneous gems we are best honed in the pressures and heat of life. Thoughts left unexamined reside in memory past, calling to come forth, inform and bring perspective and insight to the last stage of life.
The older I get the more my past influences how I live and view life, understand myself, and project what is important to me in the days ahead. Is this true for you as well?
Fa (look, seek, and take)
Is it worth going back into the past to fetch and learn from forgotten experiences, discarded failures, and unexamined truths?
The mythic Sankofa turns its head to the past and brings forth the egg filled with courage, hope, and truth:
- Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
- There is great agony in bearing an untold story within you…a story that cries out to be told if only to yourself.
One of the most primitive things in the world is an egg before it is broken. A box without hinges, key, or lid. Yet golden treasure inside is hid. Sankofa places the egg of our past at our feet.
Yoda of Star Wars fame lived to be 900 years old. During his last years he often shared the “wisdom of the ages” that was available in his memory and interpreted through his experience:
Yoda smiled and said:
“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear. Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
“Always pass on what you have learned. You will know (the good from the bad) when you are calm, at peace…”
“Your path you must decide.”
“Named must your fear be, before banish it you can.”
“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
“Be a candle or the night.”
We are made up of different parts, some good, some bad. The mythical Sankofa challenges us to take gems of our life experiences and apply them to our lives today. Such gems may bring honesty, newness, and wisdom while guiding our lives towards a Happy New Year.
SANKOFA….GOTTA LOVE THAT BIRD.
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.