Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Genealogical lessons from Waiting for Godot and Tobacco Road

Both Waiting for Godot and Tobacco Road express a nihilistic, extreme sense of the hopelessness of existence. The characters in both appear to be frozen in the misery and lack of purpose of life. It is arguable that this lack of purpose arises from a total lack of continuity with the past. The characters appear to have no past and no future. Personally, I do not care for either of the two and both illustrate the antithesis of my own beliefs. Both works are in sharp contrast to the reality of the day to day work of a genealogist. Although, we may find the same level of hopelessness and misery in our ancestors' past lives, we realize that there are, in fact, ways to avoid the tragedy and learn from the lessons of the past to improve our lives. Genealogy is outward looking, and contrary to nihilism, affirms the importance of the meaning, purpose and intrinsic value of life.

By investigating our ancestry, we should begin to realize that there are things we can do in the present to change the outcome of the actions of our ancestors. Although we are the sum total of our ancestors, our lives are not predetermined by their actions. Genealogy is a positive force for helping people realize their full potential. Knowing the struggles, challenges, failures and successes of the past will help us to avoid the hopelessness of a nihilistic existence illustrated by the two very negative examples above. I cannot imagine the characters in either work having an active interest in their past history or investigating the lives and learning from the lives of their ancestors.

It is true that genealogy has been and can be a way to create social divisions. Historically, genealogy was used by the "upper classes" and royalty to establish their position in society and justify their feelings of superiority. To some extent, genealogy still has that anti-egalitarian tendency, when researchers attempt to prove connections to famous people or royal lines for the purpose of self aggrandizement. But by and large modern genealogy arises from a need to overcome the modern fragmentation of society and to help the individual reach out to his or her ancestors in a meaningful way. The divisional aspects of genealogy largely result from focusing on an individual line of family research and ignoring all of the other lines. It is almost inevitable, it we wish to use our genealogical research for that purpose, that we can establish a relationship with some type of social importance, generally to royalty in some form. It is when we justify our feelings of superiority through this research that social divisions become the object of our research.

In reading about the history of genealogical research, it is evident that a broad societal interest in genealogy is antithetical to both racial and class divisions. If genealogical pursuits are limited to the dominant class or race, then it becomes only one more way to justify oppression and social division. For that reason alone, genealogy as it is proceeding today as a broad pursuit that cuts across all levels of class and race, is a valuable component in overcoming that same racial and class divisiveness.

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