Why Genealogy Is Not the Answer to Finding Yourself

Genealogy is history on a personal scale. It helps satisfy a deep need to understand how we fit into the broader world around us. Nonetheless, knowledge of our ancestors does not define us.

Genealogy is history on a personal scale. It helps satisfy a deep need to understand how we fit into the broader world around us. Nonetheless, knowledge of our ancestors does not define us.

It has been written about plenty: Genealogy is the second-most popular hobby in the United States, just behind gardening. Genealogy sites are second only to porn on the Internet.

Genealogy and the search for family history can be a big part of what we do here at Modern Heirloom Books, especially when a family wants to tell the stories that have passed through generations of descendants and preserve them for the children.

And I am not immune to the quest: Having almost no knowledge of my family beyond my grandparents (“We’re American,” my grandmother would tell me when I asked about where we came from), I can sit for hours scanning census records and clicking on those enticing “hint” leaves on Ancestry. I watch Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow, too.

Genealogy is fun, and it has great value. However, having a knowledge of your ancestry does not define you as a person.

You are making your own path.

Over Father’s Day weekend I saw an article, “Searching for Our Roots,” and was troubled when I read this quote from a man who has no ties to his blood relatives:

“When asked if he felt ‘incomplete,’ Giddins replied, ‘Definitely. I knew nothing about me. Can you imagine growing up knowing nothing about your health, your family? You’re nothing.’ “

I have read similar sentiments before from individuals who are not connected to their roots, including from adoptees as well as from folks whose parents simply did not talk about the past. “How can I know who I am when I don’t know where I came from?” the thinking goes.

While knowing your family’s past can be empowering, even liberating, it should not be a prerequisite for knowing oneself. Especially in our digitally dominated lives, self-reflection is becoming more and more rare. Perhaps we should look inward more often. Journaling, writing letters, having tech-free conversations with friends, are all powerful ways to connect both with loved ones and with our inner self. You, whether you are aware of your ancestry or not, have important stories to tell.

If there is a lesson in genealogical research, it is how interconnected we are to one another. (A personal aside: If only this message were so widely accepted that intolerance were a thing of the past, but headlines deem otherwise.) This is a profound lesson, but isn’t it one we can get as well from stories of individuals whose names do not appear on our own family tree? (Listen to The Moth podcast for proof.)

Don’t collect ancestors. Collect stories.

It’s the people you want to know, not just their names. Their struggles, their triumphs, their foibles and follies. You can’t get those stories from a branch on a family tree (though you will almost certainly get clues that lead you to those stories if you are persistent!).

Look to loved ones in your present, not just your past, to define who you are and what is important to you. After all, you are living your life, making memories, and creating stories to share with your own children one day!

Look to loved ones in your present, not just your past, to define who you are and what is important to you. After all, you are living your life, making memories, and creating stories to share with your own children one day!

So sure, click on the green “hint” leaves, gather names and census records, even take a DNA test if you’re so inclined (I did). Just don’t pin your own identity on what you find—and don’t lose sight of the people behind the names. The journeys of those people have led to you. And your journey is continuing, right now.

Oh yeah: And tell your stories as you go. Talk of them around the dinner table, record them, preserve them. As the research indicates, it’s the sharing of family stories that helps kids be resilient and contributes to a healthy sense of identity. You may be depriving your future generations of a grand genealogy adventure by giving them their lineage instead of a mystery to be solved...but that’s a good thing, right?