Genealogy: Why is it Important to Know Where You Came From?

DNA testing that can tell the Genealogy of a person has been a growing trend in pop culture, which is evident in the various shows that document a celebrities’ journey to discovering their family’s past. Shows such as TLC’s “Who do you think you Are?” and PBS’s series “Finding you Roots” perhaps started it all, but begs the question: why is it important to know where you came from? To address this question, one can look to experts and participants who have undergone the search themselves.

In The Wall Street Journal’s, “When a Genealogy Hobby Digs Up Unwanted Secrets,” “New York filmmaker Heather Quinlan found more than a few skeletons when digging into her ancestors’ closet. Among them: Thomas Fagan, her grandmother’s great-grandfather, who had killed a man during a drunken bar fight in 1868 (reportedly hitting him over the head with a chair in self-defense).” Discoveries such as this can definitely dishearten someone in the present, causing them to be discouraged and doubtful of their future because of their family’s troubling past. Furthermore, “Experts say reactions can range from detached bemusement to identity confusion and soul-searching as the researcher tries to understand—and rethink—his or her lineage.”

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Via Heather Quinlan
Via Heather Quinlan

Anderson Cooper underwent a similar experience, which was noted in The New York Times; “Screening a Show and Shaking the Tree: ‘Finding Your Roots’ on PBS premieres Season 2 at MoMA.” During his journey to find his roots, he “always thought that the Cooper side of the family was Southern and poor, [but] learned that a fourth great-grandfather owned 12 slaves.” Upon reflection of this discovery, Cooper comments in the article that “It’s really depressing” and “I feel a sense of shame.” Findings that suggest that your family history was not heroic or inspirational can make you want to dig deeper to know exactly who you are in the present. That is actually a good idea. The more you know about where you came from, the better you can understand and appreciate how far your family has come.

Via Anderson Cooper
Via Anderson Cooper

The Wall Street Journal expert Professor Lisa F. Platt, “who has researched use of family-tree information in therapy,” further notes that “Uncovering family secrets can also lend insight into current problems. Becoming aware of patterns of alcoholism, divorce, abuse or other misbehavior can make it easier for people living today to understand and change them.” It can also motivate you to go further in life than those who disappointed you in the past, thus stopping unhealthy patterns to establish a sense of redemption for a not so great lineage.

Whether you get inspired to participate in your own genealogic study, which can range from $100-$400, or wonder about the possibilities while watching TLC or PBS, it is great to be interested in your family’s past. If you do take the journey for yourself, just realize that you may not discover a fantastic story of where you came from. Even so, find comfort in knowing that there is no such thing as perfection. If there were, your lineage could have stopped a long time ago. But once you realize that “You are not who you think you are,” you can change where you are going.

 

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