Why Genealogy Matters

Community by Jeff Kubina, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved
Community by Jeff Kubina, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved

Genealogy has undoubtedly experienced a rebirth in recent decades. The proliferation of online resources and the vast opportunities for crowdsourcing to expand one’s ancestral knowledge underscores the popularity boom that genealogy has experienced.  Currently, it is considered the second most popular hobby in the United States, and the second most visited genre of online information, according to ABC News.  But beyond a matter of general curiosity or the desire to answer a specific question about lineage, it is worth asking what is valuable about embarking on a search for one’s ancestors.  As I discuss below, discovering your ancestors’ identities can be of enormous significance on both an individual and communal level.

Access to genetic and medical information.  One of the pragmatic benefits of the breadth of genealogical information now available online is the opportunity to learn more about one’s genetic and medical history.  To highlight the importance of sharing this information, since 2004, the Surgeon General has designated Thanksgiving as Family History Day in a national effort to encourage families to make their health histories accessible to one another.  Medical professionals have known for some time that both widespread diseases – such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as less common diseases – such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis – have a strong genetic component.  Gathering information about your family’s ethnicity and medical history is a vital step in obtaining optimal preventive care for you and your future ancestors.

Uncovering deep truths about personal identity.  For those yearning for a more philosophical angle, tracing one’s ancestors can have a transformative effect on personal growth.  At the core of all religious and philosophical paradigms are questions of identity, belonging and purpose.  The journey of discovering who our ancestors were, how they lived their lives, what kind of struggles they endured and how they were connected to their place in history can provide much internal meaning and even a newfound sense of direction for the researcher.  Psychologists believe that people who experience a substantial lack of genealogical connectedness may suffer from identity issues as psychological well-being is very much dependent on the extent to which we feel linked to our roots.

Making the global community more personal. Beyond the scientific and philosophical value of genealogical research from an individual standpoint, it appears that forming connections to one’s past, and consequently discovering present relationships to other families and groups, has the ability to make people feel more connected to one another.  This sentiment has been widely expressed on various blogs and surveys when people are asked to explain the source of their passion for genealogy.  In general, people tend to be more invested in protecting and nurturing that which is genetically or culturally close to them.  It is often the perception of the “other” that engenders fear and suspicion in even the most well-meaning individuals.  Perhaps the knowledge that we are connected, even in the remotest links of ancestral webs, can help us to become more tolerant and respectful of one another’s culture, religion and ethnicity.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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