Why Knowing Your Past is Important for Your Present
I am reading a fascinating book right now called, “What Disturbs Our Blood”. It is a true story of a man desperate to uncover the deep dark family secret of what happened to his grandfather – a prestigious and highly respected physician. After watching his own father, also a highly regarded physician, attempt suicide the author realizes that he must understand more about his paternal line or risk facing a similar slide into severe depression. The author who is a journalist, does an impressive search of his family history which takes him from Ontario to Ireland and then from coast-to-coast across the United States and Canada. His findings confirmed his suspicions that his grandfather also took his own life. Both his grandfather and father were at the pinnacles of their careers and showed no signs of an impending deep depression. It is armed with this information that the author not only wants to celebrate the significant accomplishments in bacteriology and immunology by his father and grandfather but it provides him with the motivation to start dealing with his own demons before they take hold of him.
The book inspired me to once again consider my own family history. Several years ago I started some genealogical work but quickly ran into dead ends. The family history on my Dad’s side (paternal) is incredibly muddy and the elder generation is either in no mood to talk about the history or has blocked it out. Undeterred, I hired a genealogist but without any leads from those alive, she ran into the same dead ends. I have learned enough to know why the history on my paternal side is rarely discussed but I also learned that my blood line are not as WASPy as I once thought. On my Dad’s side I am a mix of English, Irish, and German. Recently, I received an email from a distant cousin whom I have not met but she explained that my great, great, great grandfather was a shoemaker and is buried in Hull, Quebec. This might explain my shoe fetish and attraction to Quebec!
Beyond the somewhat trivial findings one can dig up with a genealogical search, it can be useful for examining health patterns in your family. If, like the author of “What Disturbs Our Blood” you find a significant history of mental illness, it might prompt you to consider your own health status. Similarly, one might find genetic links to diseases like cancer, heart disease or multiple sclerosis. Since most diseases are expressed as a result of genetic and epigenetic factors, a significant lifestyle change could alter the course of your life. It is funny how the older you get, knowing about where you come from seems more important. As Carl Sagan once said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
One more piece of trivia: the maternal line of my Dad’s side the family history is well researched. I recently received the family tree for that side and right at the top is non other than William Shakespeare himself!