Understanding and perspective

Obtaining good genealogical insight requires an open mind.  As in the old saying:

“Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”

Thomas Dewar

Getting good genealogical data and information requires a lot of work.  But perhaps the most challenging work involves developing a relevant, contextually accurate, frame of reference to help find and interpret any data you might find.

Based on what I see floating around the Internet, I worry that too many people ‘out there’ are attempting to gather data/ information about their family past without developing an adequate understanding of time, place, or circumstance. The questions/comments, I see, seem to indicate a preference to having others feed them ‘quick answers’ via their favorite facebook or yahoo groups.  I, too frequently, see questions/comments such as:

  • Does this person look like they were [some group member]?
  • Where do you think the people in this picture might have lived?
  • Oh it is horrible what [these people] did. They never should have [done that].
  • Why did they leave [country name] in [year]?

The quick answer to questions/ comments, like those above, and others like them is, how would I know… and, why would my answer [as a reader of the group] make any difference?

In all situations, peoples’ choices and decisions are based on some combination of time, place, or circumstance. As family historians, we need to be aware of the options that were available to our ancestors in their time and within their sphere of understanding.  We are not well served (nor are they) by us evaluating their choices and outcomes with the advantage of our 20-20 hindsight.

Remember when your predecessors made their life choices, they did not have prior knowledge of the outcome of their choice(s). They simply were presented with the time, place, and circumstances of their choice, situation, or dilemma.  They then, chose, what they probably believed to be, their ‘best option’. Just like your choices today are hopefully informed and in your best interest, theirs were as well (more often than not). Basically, if you hope to understand how they ended up where they did, you need to try to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’. Don’t judge, “try to understand“.

Now, none of this is to say our forebears did not make mistakes.  They did.  So do we.  But just as you wish to be understood, they deserve an effort on your part to understand them and their choices.  They are not here to speak for themselves, to explain their actions, to explain their dilemmas.  You are burdened with doing that for them. It is the least that you can do, if you are researching your family history.

Is that easy? Not always.  And, sometimes it is not even possible.  Time, place, and circumstances have simply changed too much for your to establish a viable connection.  However even under those circumstances where you are unable to develop a viable connection, you can do ‘somethings’ to ease the journey and acquire some understanding.

You can establish a loving perspective when undertaking your search. Remember no matter what may have happened, it can not be undone, and you were not responsible. Also, consider that had these people not lived, neither would you.

Most importantly remember that you are an active participant in this ‘history’; you have been placed on continuing this journey through life for your families. It won’t be long before the time and circumstances of your existence and choices are forgotten and your descendants will need to strive and understand your choices better.

Let me close with some more concise thoughts from others:

“We love the imperfect shapes in nature and in the works of art, look for an intentional error as a sign of the golden key and sincerity found in true mastery.”
― Dejan Stojanovic

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
― Abraham Lincoln

“We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the person we love. This is the ground of real love. You cannot resist loving another person when you really understand him or her.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh