Sunday, January 27, 2013

Where Do I Come From?

On TV, as I write this, is a show called Who do you think you are? Versions of this show are produced in the UK and Australia; I’m not sure if there is a US version. Each episode traces the genealogy of a celebrity. This undoubtedly reflects the increased general interest that people have in tracing their ancestry, in determining where they come from.

The desire to discover our genetic and social heritage is understandable. We are seeking to place ourselves, our lives, within a context. Accompanying this quest is a deep conviction that we carry our past within us, which is certainly true, both at the social and genetic level.

Of course, we are actually the result, each of us, of the combination of thousands of genetic pasts: the influence of any single one of those on our life here and now is likely to be very small. So if our great, great, great grandparent was a writer, anything in his or her genetics that influenced him or her in that direction will be extremely diluted in us. After all, we each have thirty-two great, great, great grandparents. The strongest influence on us is much more likely to be our immediate environment as we are growing up. Separating “nature” from “nurture” is, of course, extremely difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, the fact that I like to read is almost certainly directly attributable to the fact that my father has always loved to read.

There are two things that strike me as interesting about this quest to ground our lives, or uncover some imagined truths about ourselves, via genealogy. The first is the insatiable desire that human beings have to explain things. If I am a writer, and I discover that one of my forebears was a writer, I think that I have somehow “explained” something about myself. I haven’t, of course. Why am I a writer, for example, rather than an undertaker, which could have been the profession of another of my ancestors? We choose among the building blogs of our past the things that most appeal to us, as an explanation for who we are. But why the need for an explanation, anyway? The actual explanation may be much more proximate and mundane; but does it really matter? I make of myself what I am, from the building blocks available to me, whatever their source. I am a writer, because I am a writer, not because my great, great etc. grandfather was.

The second point is related to this. We are constantly seeking, not just explanations for things, but meaning in things. What is the difference between an explanation and a meaning? Explanation looks at cause and effect. In snooker, the red ball moved because the white ball struck it; the white ball, in turn, moved because the cue struck it. In genealogy, we are inclined to argue, first of all, in terms of cause and effect: I am a writer because my great, great, great grandfather was. But we add to this something extra, something very human: namely, the concept of meaning. In our eyes, the knowledge that our forebear was a writer makes our own choice to be a writer more meaningful, more significant. We see it as evidence of some kind of pattern, shape or purpose in the unfolding of events. In an almost mystical sense, it brings our ancestor forward into our own lives: we are continuing something that they started. They live again in us. As I write this, I find myself resonating strongly with it. And I begin to see it from a different perspective. The fact that both my ancestor and I are writers gives meaning, not to my life, but to his (or hers). I am keeping something of that ancestor alive, validating and affirming it, even if unknowingly. The fact that I now know it, that I am conscious of the connection, brings them back into the world, brings them into the present, to live on in some small way, in me.

I would like to think that my descendants will help to keep me alive in this way.

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