“If our ancestors could see us now…they’d be so proud.”
I made this sarcastic comment as my husband and I were engaged in a martial-arts-based workout in our living room. We were staring at a small television we had pulled out for the occasion, determinedly punching and kicking the air in front of us and looking like two people who’ve never had to physically fight for anything in our lives. Our children occasionally walked by and giggled quietly (breaking our house rule that says you are allowed to laugh at someone who’s working out only if you join them for the workout), and I was feeling a little silly.
I imagined how puzzling this would be to the ancestors we’ve never known—going back at least several generations—who had to physically fight for almost everything. For my husband and me, looking back only one (for me) and two (for him) generations takes us back to the farm, and as far back as we know, our families have always worked the land and raised livestock. How would our farming forepeople in centuries past react to see us—probably twice their size and not close to death from old age as some of them were at our age—indoors, punching and kicking and working up a sweat for no apparent reason? Would they think we feared the small man on the television screen, who was also doing a lot of punching and kicking?
I actually think about this a lot. I try to imagine what my ancestors would think if they saw me in various situations: using the ATM, trying to choose between brands of toilet paper, riding an escalator. It has a way of making my life seem ridiculous and amusing. It also often brings a vague sense of shame at my softness. I’ve come from people who were tougher than me, who worked from sunrise to sunset or long past, who—if you go back far enough—killed animals essentially with sticks and stones just to survive. They didn’t need to work out because they used their bodies to work all day! They would never have come home from work and whined about making dinner. They wouldn’t have complained that their new sweatpants were too scratchy. They wouldn’t have lain on the sofa for four hours straight and watched athletes exert themselves in the Olympic Games.
So that’s what I was thinking about as I punched and kicked in the general direction of the wall on the other side of the living room. Sure, I was drenched in sweat and my heart rate was up to 160; I felt like a wimp.
Then I had a new thought. Perhaps the workout caused nourishing blood to rush to a long-unused place in my brain. I actually pictured it: a few of my ancestors, from different points on the historic timeline, walking through my front door. How would they actually react to what they saw? How would they behave if they were actually transported through time and space to my suburban living room?
Would they immediately go out back and start chopping the neighbor’s trees for firewood? Not after I showed them the furnace. Dig a well? Not once they saw the faucets. Whip up some spears and go hunting? They might think about it until they saw the inside of the fridge.
I think this is what they would do: they would park their butts on the sofa, grab a bag of Doritos, and stare at the TV. They’d probably stay there for days, except for repeated trips to fridge for more food. They would stuff themselves. They would ensconce themselves in fleece and eat ice cream straight out of the carton and turn up the thermostat to 85 degrees. They would be the worst version of myself. The version I’ve never actually been but I can imagine myself becoming if I decide to just let it all go someday. And they wouldn’t feel guilty about it at all. They would have no idea about the consequences of living that way. They would have found what they had been working so hard for—and more. They would have spent their lives not even daring to dream that life could be so good.
I don’t think my ancestors would look down on us for punching the air in front of the TV; they would be in awe of us, moving and working when we didn’t have to. “You work too hard,” they would say. “Why bother? We have so much food here, so many clothes, and it’s so warm. And the dirty clothes are washing themselves! Sit on the couch with me and have some Cheetos and Twinkies. Enjoy another episode of Jerry Springer. I love this show because the people remind me so much of my friends in the village back home. Always fighting and yelling at each other.”
So now I’m feeling pretty good about myself. I’m incredibly disciplined and not at all lazy like my ancestors. And when I start to slip back into that old feeling that I’m soft and spoiled and a little ridiculous for running on a treadmill that won’t let me actually go anywhere, I’ll just imagine that lazy caveman in the corner of the room, snoring in the recliner.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.