A lot of people ask me why I study my ancestors. They’re dead, right? (My answer is, “Unless they are secretly zombies, then yes.”) So what is the big deal, anyway? Well, I’m glad you asked me, Mr. Random Stranger I just met two seconds ago! Studying my ancestry has changed my life in a lot of interesting (positive) ways. It has even changed my career path and has probably redirected my own choices in ways that are still too meta even for me to fully understand.
But first let me set something straight. What I’m not going to do is tell you, dear reader, that genealogy will change your life. There are no guarantees about anything. One of the scary parts about digging into those closets is finding the skeletons. We all have to come to grips with them in our own ways. However, what I will say is much more exciting: doing genealogical work on your family tree will give you an appreciation for the choices we all make and how far-reaching are those choices. As a result, it has the potential to make you a better person.
Bear with me and let me explain; hopefully, in the process, I will convince you.
Before that, I wanted to tell you my personal bias. Some people learn about their family history when they sit down at a holiday dinner. They’ll gather around the elder members and listen to narratives about this great person or that great pioneer; smiles will be exchanged, chicken will be consumed, wine passed around to the older aunts and uncles. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t know, because I never had those experiences as a kid (the part about the telling of family history, I mean–coming from a family of Germans, Ukrainians, and Italians, we had plenty of drinking).
Growing up in a divorced family, life was a challenge. I had to make difficult decisions (and so did my parents); I was often the rope in the pitted, ideologically-driven tug-of-war battles between my mother and father. Lines were drawn in the dirt, and as much as I wanted to stamp those lines out, the constant yelling and finger pointing had forced me to choose sides (and switch sides) often. I had to walk a very fine line. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for hurting either of my parents. I saw them struggling enough with their own demons.
I don’t blame them; they were only a little older than I am now. They had already lost two children (one to an accident that involved a drunk driver and another to complications at birth). If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it all either. I was lucky (and thankful) that they both loved me and wanted me around.
Still, as a six year old, the world looks huge; Instead of my parents I saw them as warring giants. I imagined them picking up large boulders and throwing it at each other. Their bickering became loud, thunderous calls that seemed to boom and echo for miles. For my early years, family events were always overshadowed with conversations about all the mistakes that were made by the other side.
Being in that environment doesn’t instill a lot of family appreciation. In fact, even into High School, being half Italian only seemed useful to me when I was talking to girls or when I was hanging out with friends (I could draw out an accent that everyone seemed to love). I didn’t know of what nationality or ethnicity the other half of my blood-line even consisted. German? Scottish? Welsh? Damned if I could have told you. And it never had any anchor point; I was a bureaucrat navigating tidal waves of polemics and red tape. I would choose whatever bloodline I thought I was, when it was useful, because for me ‘family’ was a concept I didn’t quite understand.
My point in telling you this is that I don’t believe people are predisposed to learning about ancestry. It isn’t an interest I think we’re brought up having. For a lot of people I talk to in the genealogy community, ancestry research starts with a spark of some sort. Something happens that kicks you into it. A death of a loved one, a life-shattering event, a visit to a historic place or battlefield, a blog post (hint, hint); whatever your personal event, it starts you on this road. If you’re reading this post, maybe you have felt that spark but are on the fence about moving forward. If that’s the case, hopefully by the end of thing you’ll be swayed to do so.
I won’t bore you with my spark, but I can tell you that the first time you start digging into your tree, you uncover amazing things about people who you know (or knew). But enough about me. Let’s get on to how this can all make you into a better homo sapien.
Learning about your roots does more than simply educate you about who your great-great grandparents were, it gives you a bird’s eye view of your own gene pool.
Think about just how cool that is for a moment. Anyone who has watched the show ‘1,000 Ways to Die’ or has read the various Darwin Awards should be aware how frail and fragile we really are as a species. And yet we’re here, alive today—somehow our ancestors managed to survive (sometimes in terrible, inhuman conditions) long enough to pass their DNA on to you.
You are a product of survival. Their survival. Don’t you think you owe it to them to learn a little bit about their story? It is also a little self-serving because the more you learn about how they lived, the more you can appreciate how you came to ‘be’ (I know, that was a little Heidegger-esque of me).
2. Health and Well-Being
Those individuals interested in ancestry research have some amazing advantages over those who do not, specifically with how it relates to one’s own health. As a researcher, you find tier after tier of family members and again, unless they’re all zombies, most of them are six feet under. It isn’t so much a matter that they’re dead (well, I mean, it is a little), but specifically how they died.
Church records will sometimes list cause(s) of death and, although using dated medical terminology, might even list a symptom they think caused the ailment. This can possibly lead to uncovering genetic predispositions towards cancer, heart disease, or even whether a family has a history of alcoholism. This is in fact why some people start their search into family history.
Educating yourself about health risks is one of the best things you can do to live a better, more fulfilled life; as physicians will tell you, catching health risks early and working towards lowering that risk with preventative measures is the bees knees of healthy living (obvi).
Being healthier doesn’t automatically make you a better person, but chances are good that the healthier you are, the happier you are, the more inclined you’ll be to pass along that happiness. (After all, misery may love company, but company prefers a smile—particularly one that isn’t rotting with disease and infection).
3. Critical Thinking (e.g. Playing Detective)
If you’re like me you love detective shows and Sherlock Holmes and all that good stuff. Well, digging into your family tree gives you ample opportunities to play the role of a private eye, looking for clues and searching out possibilities. When you yield a previously heretofore unknown person, place, thing, event that no one else has discovered before you, it is insanely gratifying.
Occasionally, however, the evidence doesn’t quite fit with what you’ve already found. This is not a problem. In fact, it is part of the process, because not everyone who has done their ancestry over the last few hundred years has been completely honest. The questions, the seemingly dead ends, the misaligned data points—they make you think more critically about every clue you find.
Studies have shown over and over that critical thinking is the key to healthier, better living. Why? Because if you make sensible, well-thought-out choices, you are likely going to be a lot happier (because chances are good you’re not skydiving off a cliff with no parachute). In turn, you’ll likely also be a better human being to others (because critical thinking tends to make people more empathetic to the plights of others). It also makes bosses happy (because critical thinking makes you a more efficient worker) and you’ll be able to problem-solve or trouble-shoot life’s little curve balls a hella lot easier.
4. Culture Shock
You say you’ve found some ethnic such and such DNA you never knew you had but have no idea what the hell it is? Well, welcome to the #4 reason how researching ancestry can make you a better person.
When you discover what heritage you actually come from, those traditions and cultural beliefs are infinitely more important to you. For years I was told a family tale about how we were Scottish and possibly even Native American because no one bothered to write up a family history and that was what my grandparents presumed. In fact, no Scottish or Native American DNA resides in my blood (I had it checked).
I did find out that I am partly Scandinavian and mostly German on that side of the family. Almost instantaneously, the Vikings became a group of interest for me. I wanted to learn about them, how they interacted with the world, where they traveled to, and how they evolved as a society. Similarly, I became interested in modern German, Ukrainian, and Italian politics.
I hear this a lot from people currently involved in genealogical work; they even go out and buy cookbooks and make dishes that hail from a particular country or region from which their ancestors came. But that also leaves implications, right? If you discover, for example, that one line of your family came to the United States or Great Britain after or during World War 2 from Poland, that raises some questions about their involvement, their hardships, their stories.
5. The Struggle
This has tendrils in the last few items. The truth for me is that the more I learned about the hardships of my ancestors, the easier it was for me to relate to people who are suffering hardships today. The ease with which we can do things today, in our modern era—something as simple as going to the grocery store—was a foreign concept for most of my ancestors. For them a long days’ toil meant maybe the possibility of food, especially the further back we go into the line.
While I can’t know what that is like directly, empathy can paint a pretty brutal picture. It is something to think about that back down the line my ancestors were Romans (Italian side) or Gauls (German side)—maybe they even fought each other at some point—and how their social status (Were they slaves, servants, nobility, or commoners?) impacted their livelihood. What prompted their migrations? What led to their decisions? This is not a singular story, but a human one.
Knowing that the impact of these answers have consequences, while not always realizing what they are, has changed me. It has made me far more aware of the human condition in our own contemporary era and through that situational knowledge I’ve tried to give back when I can. But this also leads into the next…
6. Your Future is Someone’s Past
Assuming humanity doesn’t die in some massive world war, or by an alien death-ray, or because some comet impacts the earth, or when the Universe collapses, or some other unforeseen event over the next thousand years or so, one day your own story will be found by someone just as curious as you. Your descendants, your relatives, will find the record of your life and they will judge it as you are judging your own ancestors.
What is the record that you want them to find?
Here is a thought: The internet is forever. That makes our mistakes and triumphs immortal—something that the past generations of your family tree did not have, and so we are left only with impressions of their actions. However your actions will be plastered all over the web (because social media) and for long after you die.
Given this knowledge, when your descendants or relatives go to find out about their past and come across your internet ghost, what is the type of person you want them to find there? Is this the first time this thought has occurred to you? Is it blowing your mind? I hope so.
But even if we take away the internet (let’s say a freak solar flare fries all the servers world-wide and the internet goes bye-bye), other records will remain. Service records, court documents, criminal activity, newspaper clippings, obituaries, and so on, will all be available to future generations. We all have that black sheep in our family tree—the one guy who robbed a stage coach and was thrown in jail and died of dysentery because ‘Screw you guy, you robbed a fricken stage coach, what did you think would happen!’
That could be you to some future researcher if you make the wrong life choices. Do you want your great-great grandchildren to find out that you robbed a store and were sent to prison? I mean, I certainly don’t want that. But ancestry research makes it abundantly clear just how long your failures and your victories transcend time. The scary part is now so does Wikipedia.
I’m all about being good for goodness’ sake; but if you can’t find the motivation there—hopefully that was a little wake-up call.
Speaking of Wikipedia, have you ever found yourself on a Wiki death spiral where you are just sitting there clicking through entry after entry because one link leads to another and you can’t stop—and then two days later you find yourself covered in drool and Doritos crumbs (this has never happened to me—*ahem*)? Well, wouldn’t it be cool if you found out that one of those Wikipedia entries related to your family tree?
Ancestry work can lead you to amazing discoveries about your lineage you never knew you had. Maybe you are descended from a king or a land baron or a famous doctor who invented the first form of contraception or something (though clearly he never used it, because you; thank goodness, amirite?).
I found out that I have major ties to the American Revolution and with strong documentation I was able to join the Society of the American Revolution, and once I can figure out how, I plan to join the General Society of Colonial Wars (some of my ancestors served in the French and Indian War). Most of my neighbors and coworkers and friends all have last names that I’ve seen in muster rolls and minutes and orderly books related to the same period, yet they have never thought to look into their own past. They will never know how impressive their family tree really is; that’s just sad to me.
Of course not everyone is related to awesome people. Some ancestors were the ones being fed to the lions, after all. But in those instances where family history turns dark, read this article and appreciate the comments in #6. Remember that our ancestors’ lives are instructive to us. We learn how to be better people and to avoid their mistakes through interpreting and reading about them.
The other upside is that it makes for good conversational ice-breakers. “Hey, my 6th Great Grandmother was the Ice Queen of Marketh and brutally slew thousands of people…want to get a cup of coffee sometime?” Works like a charm.
And there you have it. I hope I’ve convinced you that ancestry research is a step to becoming a healthier, smarter, well-rounded, well-adjusted, descent human being. If I haven’t done that, well,…I dunno what to tell you. But I hope you still dive into your family tree. What you uncover there may not necessarily be a bright shining beacon of awesome, but it will tell you a lot about yourself.