How We Fill Our Ancestral Void

Palms pressed together, fingertips at his chin, a businessman in a blue suit bows on his knees at the bust of 13th century General Tran Hung Dao.

Ngoc Son Temple on Jade Island in Hoan Kiem Lake, a mere 300 steps over the iconic Rising Sun bridge, provides a welcome respite from the bustling streets of Hanoi.

Fruit, chung cake in banana leaves, and candy surround the altar holding the bust of the red-faced (red for war) general who drove out the Mongolian invaders from Vietnam. Other Hanoians make their offerings, bow, and pray out loud in Vietnamese.

Not knowing what’s being said, I feel a presence. The gravity in peoples’ somber faces. A sense of invocation. A petition to a long-lost ancestor – for strength, courage, and inspiration. A connecting with a heritage.

I’m in awe at the fusion of the contemporary in the navy blue business suit with the ancient in the 13th-century general.

My perceptions of what’s going on are affirmed, an hour later, when talking with Tuan, a shop owner who speaks the best English I have encountered in Vietnam.

“They pray to the general for strength and courage in their own lives. He was a very important figure in the history of Vietnam. He fought off Kubla Khan and the Mongolian invaders. We believe in honoring that strength to ask for it in our own lives.”

Outside the temple, two men burn fake money in a fire oven.

“It’s a way of offering money to the spirits,” Tuan tells me. “If you get a scooter, a car, or a house, you want to keep the spirits happy. You want to share your wealth with them.”

I appreciate, if not overestimate their faith system. Likely it comes from my judgment of a deficit of such systems in the U.S.

Is this a practice of superstition based on the fear of losing wealth or the appreciation for one’s abundance? I wonder.

“Both,” Tuan says. “I too burn money.” This strikes me as poignant, as Tuan is 28 and often traditional rites are only practiced by the older generation.

Ancestors, ancient practices, rites, all handed down through a many centuries old culture. It has me thinking about our practices and rites in the United States.

In the absence of such a cultural heritage, we tend to choose rites, as if shopping. Be it for material items, a partner, guides, a spiritual path, or a religion that we connect with. I am no different.

And for many of us, a religion forms without an understanding of it as such – the religion of Me.

Attempts to fill the ancestral void range from the pursuit of money, career, spirituality and most unconsciously of all, to romantic love, as we search for the one who will complete us.

And yet, is the void not much bigger than a single partner? An absence that a partner can never possibly fulfill?

“Fill my emptiness and then I can hate you when you fail,” I say in my book Fixing You Is Killing Me.

Why do we attempt to fill the void, through a partner? How do we know when we’re doing it?

To know, we must ask hard questions – Are we in a big love or small love? A marriage or relationship that energizes us? Or do we stay because it’s a balm to being alone?

Consider the question. It is a tough one to ask. And yet it offers many opportunities – to improve your relationship, to expand what you seek from a partner, and what you seek within.

Namaste, Relationship Warrior. Always go deeper. And bow to the general within.

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A version of this post was previously published on StuartMotola and is republished here with permission from the author.

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