Your Identity is Not Defined by Who or where You Came From
Over the years, and for as far back as I can remember, I was intensely interested in genealogy and the stories of my family’s heritage. Growing up, my biological father didn’t have a relationship with me. But even after he died, I kept in contact with his mother because she showed an interest in me and my brother. She was born in the US to Italian immigrants and I was always really intrigued by her stories of them. Like the one about my great grandfather being one of the construction workers who put the gold roof on the Fisher Building in Detroit.
For one reason or another, I always felt like that one-quarter Italian blood running through my veins was more important than the rest. I don’t think my feelings on this had anything to do with genetics or familial success. Those on my father’s side were neither particularly good looking nor very successful. What I’ve concluded is that it probably just had more to do with the fact that my Italian heritage was easily traced and that I had real stories going back to the mid-1800s in Vigo di Cadore. The other three quarters of my genetic makeup is such a mix that I never really knew where to start researching, and even though I did make some gains, I didn’t feel a connection to any of the other cultures the way that I did with my grandmother’s Italian heritage.
I don’t think I’m alone in this interest of researching my family’s past. It’s practically an American pastime to celebrate, usually in some comical or caricaturistic way, that drop or two of Irish or German blood we claim to have within us. What I suspect is that this pride of ours for heritage is somehow a combination of our collective national identity crisis stemming from the melting pot of our culture, a national philosophy steeped in individualism, and our human tendency toward tribalism. Who knows? What do I know?
Over the years, I’ve had my own fair share of pride in this regard. Periodically, I’d sign up for one of those Ancestry.com accounts where you can research your family heritage. But without fail, I’d usually end my subscription in frustration after only a month. Not because it wasn’t working; quite the opposite. I’d cut off my subscription because it was working too well.
If you’ve ever actually sat down and looked at a family tree, you might know what I mean about getting frustrated, even if you know a lot about your heritage already. These things start out easy. You write your own name down. Check. Then you write out your parents’ names, your grandparents’ names. You put on some coffee. You come back and maybe you know most of your great grandparents’ names and you ask Uncle Charlie for the others. Then it starts to get interesting. You start asking people for help filling in major gaps or you have to go digging through censuses and draft cards and ship manifests. This can be fun. If you don’t get frustrated at this point and you have some success in your research, the tree continues to grow, and it can grow damn fast, especially if you connect with other users with a common ancestor. At some point you will hit dead ends, but rest assured that each successive generation doubles, whether or not you know who contributed to your genetic makeup or not. A lot of people had sex to make you.
It’s even easier to visualize this doubling of ancestors that occurs each successive generation with what’s called a fan chart. It’s basically a series of successive circles that start out small. You occupy the center circle, your two parents in the second circle, your four grandparents in the third, etc. Each successive layer gets exponentially larger, and by the time you reach your 10th great grandparents, 2,048 people constitute the makeup of your gene pool. Ten generations might not be that far back, either. There’s usually 3-5 generations in each 100 year period.
If we think about deeper time, at least as it pertains to our species, some people estimate that humans as we know it have been walking this earth for about 200,000 years. And if the average generation is 25 years, that means there have been something on the order of 8,000 generations that came before you. Other scientists estimate that humans have only been around 50,000 years and current estimates of the number of people who have ever lived on earth is about 100 billion. That's 15 times the amount of people who are alive today. This fact inevitably left me with the feeling that researching my family’s heritage was little more than a fool’s errand.
Our egos may search for meaning in the past to help us define ourselves today, but we can only come back empty handed. By looking back, it’s my experience that we are not able to distill some powerful meaning out of our past from a handful of cultures or events or people we are blood relatives with. With any amount of time and reflection, we most often come to the realization that we are all beautifully diluted and that 99.9% of our makeup is the same genetic material as everyone else.
The point is, we are made up of the genetic code from a vast array of people, and every single one of those people lived a life of their own. Some of them were shitbags and some of them were saints and we’ll never know which were which or even who the vast majority of them were. Furthermore, no amount of historically significant information dug up on our relatives has any bearing on who we are today. We are our own accomplishments and failures, not theirs.
Still, throughout all of my research on my family tree, whenever I’d hit a dead end, I found myself wondering what might have happened to that person so that they left no trace and no further information to be found. They probably had children who loved them and parents in turn who probably loved them as well. But the branch just goes quiet. I think this speaks to one of our greatest fears. That’s the fear of our own branch dying, going quiet, and being forgotten.
Most of us would like to be remembered after we die. I’m not really sure why, but it’s probably the ego again wishing for some small part of us to remain immortal. Unfortunately, history has shown us that the people who are most likely to be remembered are those who were in power, and I’m inclined to believe that the majority of what we think we know about those people has been fabricated.
For the rest of us, your great-great-great grandkids likely won’t even know what your name was, let alone anything about who you were as a person. I don’t write that to be mean, either. It’s meant to help unburden you from any sort of ego-driven daydream that anyone is going to care about you when you’re gone. And that’s okay.
Neither the past nor the future matter nearly as much as we think, and being mindful of how you spend your time right now is the essence of living a meaningful life, not worrying about your legacy.
On the flip side, sometimes people view you as their legacy, which can be just as difficult to deal with as letting go of your own feelings on this topic. When family is closely involved in our lives, I think it can sometimes be very difficult to live our highest and best self when we sacrifice the best parts of ourselves or our own potential for family just because they are our blood relatives (mom’s excluded – happy Mother’s Day!). Besides the potential for being a huge drain on your time and energy, families are notorious for either putting unreasonable expectations on us or not allowing us to change for the better by consistently reminding us of who we were in the past. For many of us, family might be the single greatest thing holding us back from personal growth. If you find that certain family members are taking more energy from you than they are putting back in, or it doesn't feel like they're respecting your life choices, it might be time to reevaluate whether or not you should be investing so much in your relationship with them instead of respecting and loving yourself.
It’s easy to get bogged down worrying about the past or dreaming about the future. If you find yourself anxious about either one, I’ve personally found mindfulness exercises really helpful, and you might too. I won’t go into details here, but there are a bunch of resources and information on the web and many of the techniques are easy and can be incorporated into your everyday life without too much hassle. I took a 10-week mindfulness meditation course a couple of years back and it changed my entire outlook on life in short order. I recommend it. There are also a handful of apps out there to help you learn some new techniques.
Also, don’t sign up for Ancestry.com. It’s a total rip off.