History is not always pretty. Humanity is not always pretty. If you look deep enough into your family’s past, you will surely encounter some ugly memories that your ancestors would prefer you overlook and forget. But should you?
Yes, I know… We all want to be descended from royalty. We all want to believe that our family is cut from the finest of cloth, that our ancestors were kind, wealthy, generous, intelligent, hard-working examples of what all mankind should aspire to be. But were they? Perhaps better said… Were they all?
The fact of the matter is, you and I are connected to many tens of thousands, if not millions, of other people from the past who shared a very similar DNA. (See my article, The Math Behind a Family Tree .). The likelihood, therefore, is that somewhere in our past, we are all connected to someone famous. And it is just as likely that we are all connected to someone infamous.
My personal take on life is that there is a fine line between prince and pauper, oppressor and oppressed, benefactor and thief. And if our legacy as humans is that we are intimately connected to those who have come before us and contributed to our DNA, our looks, our personality traits, etc., then all of us have in our past opposing forces of good and evil, triumph and tribulation, success and failure.
Perhaps this is summed up best by the ancient Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer (known better in English as simply, Terence), who nearly two centuries before Christ, wrote the now famous words, “Nothing human is alien to me.”
As I read these words, in the context he portrayed them, I believe Terence was suggesting that we humans all have within us the power and the ability to commit the most heinous of acts; and that, likewise, we all have within us the power and ability to achieve magnificent things… The power and ability to kill, and to take from others that which is theirs… And the power and the ability to impart grace, forgiveness and love.
It is with this in mind that I phrase the question again… While there might be some ugly memories that our ancestors would prefer us genealogists and family historians to overlook and forget, should we? Should we be revisionists when passing on our family histories? Should we sterilize the record to remove evidence of the likes of crime, alcoholism, adultery, discrimination and domination over others?
As I have researched my own family, I have discovered evidence of depression and alcoholism; and evidence of confident leadership and superb salesmanship. I have found cases of infidelity and even occasional bigamy; and yet many more cases of loving, lifelong partnerships. Within my family’s past were those who endorsed and participated in slavery; and, likewise, those who were disgusted by it and stood against it. There were those who were Viking plunderers; and those who were Puritan saints. In one branch of my family were ancient Irish ancestors who were enslaved and ultimately killed by their English oppressors; and in another branch, were the very same English who defeated them and took their lands. There were those who were brave colonists who carved a new and fruitful existence in what was then the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts; and there were those who displaced, and even killed, the Native American Indians who were there before them.
All of this is part of my legacy. (Somehow, I suspect it isn’t far removed from your own family’s legacy.) It is my personal belief that these opposing forces of good and evil, triumph and tribulation, success and failure, all need to be included in any complete and honest historical narrative of our families’ pasts. No, I am not suggesting we villainize those occasional unsavory souls who came before us. Nor am I suggesting we attempt to atone for their missteps or, for that matter, to whitewash over them for our own benefit. Rather, I am suggesting we look at history with objectivity and balance and that we celebrate the sum of who we are and the lessons that can be drawn from that.
I have often imagined what it would be like if I could assemble a thousand of my ancestors in one large room and ask them to share their best advice, their common legacy. Somehow, all these years after their passing, I suspect that they would want their descendants, with full awareness of their human faults and flaws, to rise up above those faults and flaws and make something better of themselves. Not just for those who are here now, but for those who will come after us… Indeed, for all of humanity. Perhaps this is the conversation I will someday have with my ancestors when I meet them in the “great beyond”… as we look down together on those who will yet continue to inherit the legacy I will leave behind.
Interestingly, the more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God’s grace.
Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “Thoughts on the Greater Legacy of Humanity”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog’”, posted May 5, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).