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Lions Roar : July 2013
down the front door to his plantation and destroyed his land. It began what Jungian analyst Polly Young-Eisendrath calls the “unconscious emotional patterning [that] is passed along the generations in families.” The discovery of my family’s slaveholding history shocked me. My father, Pat Watters, was an activist, author, and journalist who spent his life fighting for equal rights for African Americans, promoting desegregation in the Atlanta Journal and in several books. All his relatives disowned him and our family as a result. But Dad had never talked about our slaveholding history, not even to me—and he seemed willing to talk to me about anything. The inability to talk about one’s slaveholding past runs deep in the South. Until very recently, talking about slavery among descendants of slaveholders has been taboo not just in the South but in all of the U.S. I believe this denial of our ancestors’ legacy is at the root of my family’s suffering—the depression and alco- holism that has followed us for generations. This suffering, this “unconscious emotional patterning,” began with the wrongful act of owning slaves, which was followed by unacknowledged shame, hatred, and anger over the losses after the Civil War. Acknowledging the wrongs of my ancestors has given me a sense of freedom from a haunting past. Author and civil rights activist Lillian Smith said, “The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt it most. There is a return journey to anguish that few of us are released from making.” Returning to the source, to the Watters plantation, acknowledging the anguish my family created and experienced for generations, I have taken off the blinders of denial. This has helped me restore my own personal faith, lost following Patrick’s death, and to practice meditation and prayer again. I have been most helped by the Buddhist practice of metta, loving-kindness. It is a way out of the darkness of psychological bondage and the blindness of denial. In fact, it was while practic- ing loving-kindness that a sense of understanding for my slave- holder ancestors came to me during meditation: even people who would do such hateful things deserve compassion. In working to open my heart to the Colonel, I imagined him dying a broken man, suffering the consequences of his own misdeeds, and in so doing I found compassion for him. Metta practice has helped heal me, first through directing compassion to myself, then to those I love and honor, then to all sentient beings, and finally to the souls of my slaveholder ancestors. Compassion for them followed. Not easily, mind you, but gently and in time. After Patrick died, someone asked me how I kept going, with all my family now dead and gone. There are no words to describe that feeling of being so orphaned, so alone in the world. But when I let go, there is a stillness out there, in the wilderness of my family spirit, that I live in every day. I’m still here. Still. Here. ♦ ELLEN WATTERS SULLIVAN is a writer and psychotherapist living in Vermont. She is writing a memoir, I Once Was Lost: How I Got Found, about her life growing up in Georgia and discovering her ancestors’ dark past. SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2013 19