Studying our family tree teaches us so much more than the simple facts of our ancestry. One life principle that genealogy teaches us is perspective: “the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance”* Here are three things we learn about perspective.
3 Things Genealogy Teaches Us About Perspective
1. Life is Short
Whether individuals in your family tree lived for 10 or 110 years, looking back on it now, all of those lifespans were very short in the history of mankind. When looking at the grand timeline of the earth, their lives seem like tiny blips.
So, what does that say about our lives? No one knows how long their life will be. Time marches on day after day, the clock constantly ticking. We only have 24 hours per day and a finite number of years to perform life’s important tasks. Which ones will we choose?
2. Decisions Matter
Can you think of an ancestor with a life story that took a left turn when they made one seemingly small decision that changed the course of their life? We each have to make thousands of decisions each day, many not so important, some that may change everything.
If you feel hesitant about a decision for any reason, it might be best to avoid. If you feel good about a decision, but are unsure because it is outside your comfort zone, have courage and follow your gut.
3. Each of us leave a legacy—for good or ill
As you study the life of each ancestor, you quickly get a sense of the legacy they left. Some left amazing legacies that we can be proud of and cherish. Many were good, honest, hard-working folk that never got a break. Others leave tarnished or even shameful legacies that we are shocked by. What will you be remembered for?
Cases-in-Point from My Tree:
- Edwin Terrell had a rough childhood, losing both his parents as a young child and being raised by his grandparents. He developed a bad temper and when the Civil War came along, he was anxious to go fight. He joined and deserted both sides, and then became a Bounty Hunter for whomever offered the highest price. Soon he became a guerrilla warrior with several other outlaws. He met his demise in a shootout in a barn and died at the age of 23 after extended suffering from his injuries. His siblings renounced him as a brother and in his short life, he harmed many innocent people. He let his anger and greed get the best of him and left a legacy of terror that is still talked about by the Terrell descendants today.
- Caroline Green Donohoo, by all accounts, was a small but mighty woman. She was a mother of eleven children, but buried three daughters in their childhood. She helped her husband run a prominent hotel in Bardstown, Kentucky. Caroline was a strong defender of her husband’s slaves, protecting them from beatings on several occasions and even preventing her husband from selling them to worse masters, bold moves for a woman with no legal rights to do these things at the time period. Post-emancipation, she paid tuition for the freed slave children born in her household to attend school, giving them all the opportunities that education provides. Both during and after her life, she was adored and praised by her husband, children, and former slaves. She left a legacy of might, love, courage, and kindness.
The benefit of family history is that we get to view an entire lifetime in summary, giving us an overview of how the choices a person makes changes the course of their life and the legacy they leave. That perspective is harder to gain in our own lives as we live day by day in the moment. But, as we study those who came before us, we start to broaden our view of our own life and the potential we have.
Emily, my college-aged daughter, and blogger at Vintage Modern Miss, recently reflected on the perspective her exposure to family history has given her:
“The past is a part of us no matter how shameful or dreary we may make it out to be. It is what shaped us to be whomever we are when we have children and who we have become once we are grandparents… The past allows descendants to better understand why they are who they are.”
Is there someone in your life who could use a little perspective? Invite them to learn about their family history with you. It will help broaden their view and perhaps teach them that their life has great value and they are choosing now what legacy they will leave for the future.
Cordial Genealogy Wishes,
*(Merriam-Webster Dictionary app, 2017)
Stevie Wonder Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2017. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/steviewond463234.html, accessed September 11, 2017.
Keri Russell Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2017. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/k/kerirussel183404.html, accessed September 11, 2017.
Christine Gregoire Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2017. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/christineg167885.html, accessed September 11, 2017.