I am fascinated by the question “What is Genealogy?” My answer seems always to come back to the same assertion – genealogy is part of our quest for meaning.
Some have suggested that we human beings inhabit the universe’s capacity for self-awareness. To be self-aware is to know something about where and how we fit into the big picture. To be self-aware is to be on a quest toward meaning. One metaphor for that quest for meaning is genealogy. I was trained in philosophy and theology long before I began my genealogical journey; but I find a lot of similarities in the processes.
Origen of Alexandria took note of the 42 stops the Israelites made during their wilderness wanderings. He allegorized those 42 stops into the 42 stages that comprise our journey toward meaning (toward God). Bernard of Clairvaux suggested that the journey toward meaning begins with the senses (“the flesh”), moves toward sensability (“the intellect”), and finally finds meaning (“wisdom”). He called that wisdom “union” with God (ultimate meaning ).
I am not sure how many “steps” there are in the genealogical journey – maybe there are 42 (maybe more, maybe less). But I am aware of my moving through three journey stages (similar to those described by Bernard) as I engage my genealogy.
First stage: Finding Facts. I encounter the sensory data (photo albums, shoebox full of pictures and letters, school papers and diplomas, digital images, GEDCOM files, online family trees, emails for new “cousins,” and so much more). These data are the facts, potentially the stepping stones for the genealogical journney. But facts, by themselves, are just facts. I can have piles on my desk, boxes, file cabinets, computer folders, and online backup services filled with facts. By themselves, the data don’t become genealogy – that is, they don’t create connections or meaning. I gathered raw data for about thirty years before I seriously entered into the next step of the journey – making sense of the data.
Second Stage: Making Sense. My 1st cousin (once removed) did a remarkable job of making sense of the data he had gathered (much of which I received from him). He gathered and organized his genealogical journey in the days of paper, pencil, and loose leaf notebook genealogy. Fortunately, I have access to a desktop (and laptop) computer, a wide range of desktop and online genealogy software, as well as online search engines and data repositories that are growing in depth and breadth every day. These tools have helped me find new data and to organize the raw data into categories and relationships that make sense. These sensible relationships (pedigrees, family group sheets, ahnentafels, citations, etc.) become the stepping stones for the genealogical journey. The insistence on proper citation for sources is a result of our desire not to wobble or fall when we move onto particular stepping stones. As important as the stepping stones are, however, they are not the end of the journey.
Stage Three: Meaning (Union). For Bernard, the final step, reached only occasionally but sought after always, was mystical union with God (ultimate meaning). I believe it is so also with genealogy’s journey. As we immerse ourselves in the data and in the process of organizing those data so that they make sense, we periodically have those “Aha!” moments when it All seems to make sense. It is no longer just the story of how my gg-grandmother managed with 15 children or that our family is NOT directly related to the Mayflower Bradfords… somehow I find myself in my ancestors; their stories and my stories emerge as one story; meaning flows forth.
From fact to sense to meaning and connection… that is what it means for us to be sentient beings, the universe’s capacity for self-reflection and -awareness. For me, that is what genealogy is all about — the quest for meaning and purpose. Every once in a while, for brief moments, I find myself there. And in those brief moments, I know that it has ALL been worthwhile!