Jan 20, 2019

Ghosts and Ancestors

People will tell you where they've gone
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself 
You never really know
-Joni Mitchell

Towards the end of his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen describes how he’s realized that as parents, we have a choice to make: will we be ghosts or ancestors to our children. As ghosts, we haunt them with our mistakes and burdens; as ancestors, we free them from our flaws and walk alongside (or behind them) and help them find their own way.

In the past few months and without really thinking about it, I’ve started to get my morning coffee set up in place before I go to bed. On the kitchen counter I place the coffee dripper, filter, and scale, and then I weigh the beans. Last night at dinner I realized this was what my mother used to do every evening when we were kids. 

Was she now being a ghost to me, or an ancestor with me? Maybe it’s not so easy to tell.

She never said to do it this way, I just watched her. Mornings were busy - she alone had to get two boys off to school. This made it a little easier. 

In Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public, he makes the provocative point that we are in a period of crisis resulting from the switchover from an “industrial” world to an “information” world. In that industrial world, trusted institutions mediated the flow of information to people and thus created coherent visions of society. In the information era, people have direct access to information themselves and thus have seen that these institutions are fallible (maybe even corrupt). The result - a crisis of authority. 

I’ve spent a large portion of my career investing in early-stage companies. Part of that job is to advise and counsel, to assist a company in reaching its potential. I try to ask for feedback on how I am doing in that job. A constant thing I hear is to provide more direct answers to problems posed to me. Typically, I am told, I answer their questions with further questions.  

Yet, I think it’s important to tolerate ambiguity. Maybe there isn’t a direct answer. Maybe I don’t know the answer. Maybe I want to assist others in coming up with their own answers. A partner of mine used to say its ok to make a mistake, but not ok to make the same mistake more than once. Where is the balance? Here, of course, the relationship is not remotely the same as parent/child, but I still don’t want to be a ghost, rather an ancestor.

In the end, Springsteen describes what happens when you walk alongside and assist someone in finding their own way: transcendence.

blog comments powered by Disqus