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Old Time Compassion

By Daniel Hubbard | April 9, 2012

Genealogy can surprise us. We often get quite different perspectives on the people in our personal past from what we might have gotten had we lived in their day. I think it would be an unusual genealogist that didn’t at some point wish that they could journey back in time to meet an ancestor. Often it would be someone that is particularly difficult to understand or a person whose parents are unknown. It might be someone reasonably well understood but who seems like a very interesting person. I wonder if we would always be pleased with the results of our time travel. Sometimes we would be disappointed that an ancestor just does not live up to expectations. Other times I suspect that the firsthand account would not tell us what we wanted to know. Unless our ancestors would, for some reason, be perfectly honest with us and also know and be willing to share the information that we sought, why would we be satisfied with that trip through time? Why would we expect anything different than an imperfect person giving imperfect answers?

I wonder if, as fragmentary as records can be, if they don’t give us windows upon our ancestors lives that we never could have gotten had we been a contemporary. Don’t we often find things in records that a person simply had to acknowledge in a specific situation? We find information in the special circumstance that produced the record, things that a person surely would conceal or simply fail to mention otherwise. We might look at a person today and have some fairly ungenerous thoughts—”what a fool” might flash through one’s mind, for example. Yet a future genealogist, researching the records of that person’s life, might get a very different picture. Months ago I was at a talk by Tony Burroughs. He told a story of a person a few generations back who was thoroughly despised by her descendants. Yet when he researched the situation that those living descendants thought they understood, they had been there after all, it was not at all what they thought. The story was not one of cruelty and neglect but rather of surviving the only way possible.

Through genealogy we get intimate views of human lives without being nosy or being spoon fed. We gain those views gradually through the slow accumulation of knowledge and helped along by some contemplation. We see things in records that most people at the time would not have known. I recently researched a family that simply did not make much sense. Nothing so strange about that. The nonsense stage is a common stage in research. If things made sense from the very beginning we’d have very little need of research. What makes this worth mentioning is the reason for the strangeness. When I finally found the parent’s marriage, it occurred four years after the birth of the boy that later records said was their son. Then, after the parent’s marriage, I found records that updated the child’s birth record to show who the parents were. No parent, neither mother nor father, had been listed originally. The mother’s own birth record was marked “illegitimate” and only her mother, the young widow of a simple small town craftsman, was listed. Even nearly two hundred years ago, life was not without its complexities.

I wonder if genealogy doesn’t make people more compassionate. It should. Eventually, one will run into something that will require either denial with eyes tightly closed, or acceptance, investigation and an attempt to understand what a person’s life must have been like. When I took anthropology classes years ago, one of the principles that was emphasized is that when studying a culture, the only way to make progress is to ignore any judgements you might be tempted to make based on your own cultural background and to try to understand the culture on its own terms. That principle, it seems to me, is one that needs to be applied not just to studying other peoples but to studying one’s own people. Denial in genealogy does not work. It leads nowhere. Misunderstanding is no better. Sometimes being a good genealogist requires a good dose of compassion.

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Topics: Genealogy, Research Mindset | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Old Time Compassion”

  1. Palib Says:
    April 9th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Your blog today really hit home with me. It can be so easy to be judgmental, especially with the people we know and interact with. For me it is easier to be compassionate to my ancestors…their mistakes, and flaws do not impact my life today.

    Thanks for sharing!

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