The growing interest in genealogy and discovering your roots is one fad that I can get behind. And, it is as much of a fad as any other, with several hit TV shows based on genealogy, professional genealogists, books, podcasts and thousands of internet sites dedicated to family history. Ancestry.com is a not a quirky little website anymore; it’s a brand now, boasting over 2 million subscribers and over 70 million family trees.
I started my deep dive into the past almost twenty years ago when I came into possession of a partial family history written by my Great Aunt Eleanor. Since then, I have elucidated generation after generation on almost every branch of my tree. I can trace my English roots back to the 1500s and to some of the earliest settlers of New England. Other lines, the Irish line for instance, are more stubborn. And, I realize now that there are reasons these ancestors remain in the shadows, but the reasons have been forgotten over time.
The stories of my English, Irish, and German ancestors are the same stories that will be found for many people. We all share the stories, people whose ancestors were slaves or slaveholders, Jewish people, Native Americans, the French, the Italians, there is something common among them.
The experiences of nationalities or cultures over hundreds of years are part of the human story of our world, and everyone is part of this story-in-the-making. When you start to learn the stories, you have a sense of time travel, not only experiencing the events and places of ancestors in your heart and mind, but inevitably following the road forward to wonder how your own life will look to future generations.
I watched LL Cool J on PBS’s Finding Your Roots as he discovered who his family had been over the past couple hundred years. I see it happen to almost everyone who discovers the lives of ancestors, not just those who do it on TV. A perceptible change occurs. Something very deep, some sort of personal acknowledgment and acceptance strikes in their middle, no matter if the story is tragic and heartbreaking or triumphant and heroic. LL was visibly given a great gift of these stories, even though the facts and circumstances were difficult to hear.
What always amazes me is that there is often a discovery of a trait, a habit, an interest or some other pattern shared with a distant ancestor that could never have been taught or modeled. This is the mind-blowing part.
I have to wonder if there is an energy encapsulated in our genes, one that science has not detected yet, one that is passed down through generations–an invisible force that we are handed, which has a strong effect in shaping how we live our lives (Yoda would have something to say about this, I’m sure).
I find this a good explanation for why some people seem to live life with ease, always in the right place at the right time, or at least not experiencing debilitating hardships. I find this a good explanation for addictions. And, beyond the extremes of good and bad, I find this a good explanation for why people in the middle often feel stuck there. Until the energy of your story, of your place in the story, is uncovered, you are basically working half-blind and semi-conscious.
As I see it, there are two options once you learn and acknowledge the backstory of your existence–you can either accept or refuse what is given. The important part of receiving the gift is that you can then accept or refuse using conscious choice. You can either accept and be proud that you are living your life like those who came before, perhaps because of those who came before, or you can refuse to live like those who came before, clear in an understanding that you will be the generation to break the pattern.
I find no other way to explain certain things in life other than an energy that has accompanied me, given to me by those of the past. Upon discovering certain facts about my own family, I had an overwhelming sense that this life I am living is not solely for me at all. Not even close. I have been given energies (for lack of a better word) from certain ancestors, and some of these energies are definitely stronger than others. And, during my lifetime I have the great opportunity to do something with this, to break some invisible bonds that held others back. Now, I feel that I am not living for only myself and my kids. I am carrying something from the past that is my great responsibility to move along. I have a sense of what I have to do.
When LL Cool J found out that he was not from a line of slaves but of free black people, it was amazing. He was on the one hand relieved that the painful story of slavery was not his own, but on the other guilt-ridden and fearful that he would now not be considered an authentic black man in America. The amazing part is that those feelings were brought to the open, to be dealt with and talked about and worked through. It was his story, whether he liked it or not, and there is superpower in that. It showed. I can’t wait to see how he uses it in his creative life.
The popularity of genealogy is creating a new and very personal way to discuss and share our human experience, whether it’s by acknowledging the horrible ways humans have treated one another, or the great contributions made. Genealogy shows us how alike we all are. Genealogy shows us the strength that most humans manage to stand on as they work through struggles, take care of their families, live their lives. Genealogy shows us how they rise, fall and sometimes get back up, and in learning about them we often think we can do it too.
Discovering who you are is not complete until you get a sense for the energy that has also been handed down to you with your genes. It can be uncomfortable. It can be sad. It can be empowering. It is always amazing.