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The Psychology of Ancestors

By Daniel Hubbard | May 15, 2016

Mother’s Day has passed and Father’s Day will soon be upon us. Though we don’t tend to think of parents as ancestors, technically they are. How far back does a person need to be to be thought of as an ancestor? Grandparent does not seem far enough back. If Mother’s Day and Father’s Day exist to celebrate the bonds we feel to our parents then perhaps the existence of Grandparents’ Day is a sign that they are also too close to us to be considered to be ancestors.

Maybe this is why some beginning genealogists have trouble with the statement “Start with yourself.” The response is sometimes along the lines of “But I know about myself and my parents and my grandparents.” Are they really saying that they want to learn about their ancestors not just any person from whom they descend?

200px-Hungarian_Immigrants_ClevelandWhat about great-grandparents? Is that far enough? Can a little math give us the answer? If the average length of a generation is thirty years and the upper edge of the human lifespan is about one hundred years, then it starts to look like great-grandparents ought to be thought of as ancestors. The average generation puts great-grandparents at the age of ninety when great-grandchildren are born. Add another ten years for that great-grandchild to get to know a person they probably don’t see very often, and it becomes easy to see that the odds are stacked against getting to know a great-grandparent.

Is it a more personal matter? Do we think of people as ancestors only if we lack personal knowledge of them? Maybe, but I knew two of my grandparents well, never met one and the fourth died before I was three. None of my grandparents feel like ancestors. Maybe we think of people as ancestors only if we lack personal knowledge of anyone in our pedigree from their generation. What if I had known one or two great-grandparents well? Would I have trouble thinking of that whole generation as ancestors because of the psychological distance that word seems to force, but that personal knowledge makes impossible? If instead that whole class of people is beyond the bounds of memory, then perhaps they become ancestors in our minds.

A few years ago I wrote a post about the psychology of “The Old Country.” It is a bit different. We can extend the concept of ancestor as far back in time as we care to go, but the old country seems to exist only in personal or well transmitted and internalized memory. Time eventually brings any family’s concept of the old country to an end. Another thing I suspect brings that concept to an end is dilution. Too many ancestral countries, and the old country is diluted away. Not so with ancestors. In fact, I wonder if that is also part of the psychological basis for thinking of someone as an ancestor. Perhaps dilution plays a role in creating that psychological distance. We have trouble thinking of parents as ancestors. We have only two. Each one is too central. We have trouble thinking of grandparents as ancestors. We have only four. Double that number again, dilute down to each person in that generation being only one of eight great-grandparents and maybe it feels different. Dilution down to one eighth of their generation may be enough. They are no longer the main ingredients of the recipe, but spices that blend to improve taste, but whose distinct flavor is too subtle to detect.

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Topics: Genealogy | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “The Psychology of Ancestors”

  1. Sheryl Says:
    June 6th, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    For me it is difficult to share something on the internet about people I know. It feels too much like gossip. So writing about older generations is easier. Plus it is fun if you can get help with the detective work involved.

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    June 6th, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    You raise an interesting point. I wasn’t thinking of putting recent peoples’ details online, because there are privacy issues with that. On the other hand, may be in part it is those privacy related thoughts that help produce the psychological divide between “ancestors” and people we just can’t manage to think of as ancestors even though they are–if it feels private, we can’t think of the people involved as ancestors.

  3. Ken Says:
    March 22nd, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Stories can be online but not public. A family focused website that restricts access to all family members or select family members can serve as a great platform for capturing those stories of the living, with the added advantage that the stories can be told in the voice of those who lived it. Then as time passes and they become “ancestors”, their descendants can make them public if they so choose. At least that is the direction I am pursuing.

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