I fell off the family tree, but now I'm back on it
Genealogy, the study of family trees, is something I have always avoided like the plague. For several cogent reasons.
- First off, I find the whole idea of family pride ridiculous. A noble or royal ancestor? Same thing as being descended from a bloodthirsty warlord, because that's how aristocracy began. It should be a shame rather than a boast. But even beyond that, it's obvious that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live on this great and glorious planet descended from the same pair of ancestors (Adam and Eve if you believe Genesis literally) or at least a small troupe of trans-simians (if you believe Darwin). There was a revolutionary poem about it during the Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381:
"When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?"
- Secondly, I hate the way the female line is neglected in western genealogy. Once a woman marries, her identity is completely subsumed into her husband's family name. All of Sally Green's children will be Browns. Then people have the cheek to say that the Brown family is a very musical family, or a very good family or a bunch of losers or whatever, as if Sally didn't have half a say in how the children turned out. The occupation, reputation and characteristics of the male are usually documented (a barber remembered for his hearty laugh), but not that of the female. Descent from a famous person through the female line is second prize, as if Einstein's genes weren't inherited equally by all his offspring. In short, genealogy is sexist.
- I can't help feeling that an interest in the family tree is, in the end, all about ME. How did wonderful ME come into being? All these people living their lives so that the final result could be ME, like the whole of earth's history was geared towards producing it's crowning achievement - ME. It's a self-centred kind of hobby.
- Do you know how scarce a forebear's genes become as the generations go by? Grandchildren inherit 25% of each grandparents' genes. By the 5th generation, less than one gene in a hundred came from the original founding father. And those have probably mutated.
- And finally, does it really matter whose DNA is squirming in our cells? Isn't it really about what we make of ourselves NOW? The choices we make NOW? The contribution we make NOW? We can't expect recognition for what our forebears did, no matter how remarkable. We have to earn respect by means of our character and our actions NOW.
But that was before I discovered, three days ago, that I myself am descended from A Famous Person!
I still object to genealogy for all the reasons above. But now I can see some things from a different angle. Having finally acknowledged that I grew on a family tree as opposed to magically manifesting upon the planet, I feel, instead of superior, humble. Humble because of all the hardships that my forebears suffered and all that they achieved in the face of unbelievable obstacles. Sacrifices that they made so that others could have a chance at life and know what it is to walk under the sun and under the stars. In a way, each of us is an extension of their will to live and has the backing of their life force. What it's really all about is a challenge: a challenge to take the gifts of the past and carry them into the future, enriching them along the way.