Monday, September 30, 2019

Getting the Lowdown on Lofty Ideals

Almost exactly two years ago, a blogger at wrote about the benefits of pursuing one's family history. Included in that encouraging list were positives like compassion, resilience, and connection. The benefit of relationships was key.

The following March, FamilySearch's CEO, Steve Rockwood, opened RootsTech 2018 with a keynote address delving further into that sentiment. The bottom line to fascination with genealogy, he noted, is human emotion, the "primary element that engages people with their family history." For the first time, RootsTech 2018 debuted with a theme: "Connect. Belong."

The promotional hype over a super-sized conference like RootsTech might leave the more skeptical among us wincing at descriptors like "powerful" for the Rockwood presentation, but even though I only experienced it via YouTube, I can vouch for such an assessment. We hold a powerful key to human relationships when we come to grips with the reality of what he was saying. And the route to such experiences is the very research skills we love to put into practice for ourselves, and to share with others.

It's all well and good to buy into such lofty ideals and pat ourselves on the back for the nobility of what we do. I'm concerned, however, that it is so much easier to apply lofty ideals to high-minded generalities, while missing the rubber-meets-the-road practicality of the matter in real life.

Let me give you an example. Only a week ago, after sending out an email to the membership of the local genealogical society where I serve as president, I received an unexpected reply. The return note was from the husband of a member, asking me to remove this woman from our membership rolls. The reason: she had passed away earlier this month.

Shocked to hear such news so unexpectedly, I tried to run through my mind all the members I've met through several years involvement in the group, and vainly attempted to place her face, or any details about this woman. I don't recall ever meeting her, but knew she had to have some connection or reason for joining us—but who? Or what? Curious, I pulled up her obituary on the local newspaper's online site.

Have you ever gone to a memorial service out of courtesy for the living? For someone else whom you knew—a grieving relative of the decedent—despite not even knowing the person who had just died? I have, from time to time—the mother of a neighbor, or the relative of a coworker. I may have known absolutely nothing about the person who died, other than that connection to the living, but when it comes time for the reading of the eulogy, I sometimes find myself falling in love with a total stranger, and wishing I had had the chance to know that person.

That's how it was when I read the obituary for our recently-deceased fellow member. The article was certainly not one of those boiler-plate obituaries, but a memorial lovingly crafted by a family member. Yes, obituaries and eulogies can wax eloquent and make the departed more "dearly" than he or she might have been in real life. But not only did this statement reveal the love her family held for her, but told me of an accomplished woman known widely for not only her keen interest in genealogy, but a number of other pursuits, including widespread acclaim for her artwork.

I never even knew.

Moments like this can slap a person in the face and awaken us to new realizations. In this case, it showed me how genealogy is not only about connecting to our family's past—as well as helping knowledge of that past become relevant to those descendants who will be in our family's future—but it is also a way for us to connect with those other researchers on this journey of discovery with us. Coming together as members in a genealogical society is one way to express that yearning to connect, even if it is not about connecting with blood relatives; it is about connecting with others who have a passion to preserve our personal micro-histories as families. We may not be related by descent, but we are related by passion. We belong because we share that keen interest.

It seems so self-evident why we share that urge to find our third cousins twice removed, and yet we miss the sense of why we can benefit from connecting with other, unrelated, family history researchers. Yes, we get giving back, or paying it forward, or exchanging lookup services, but we need to add one more sparkling reminder to our repertoire of belonging and connecting: reaching out and getting to know the others on this same journey, the ones who take as much delight in finding their missing ancestors as we do. Connecting around our mutual interest, yes, but also stopping our research for a moment to get to know the person behind the researcher. We can become each other's best research cheerleaders. More than that, though, our mutual interest can become the impetus to help us reach beyond to connect with each other, person to person.


  1. aww you must have a large group or maybe she wasn't as active.

    1. No, we don't really have a big group--only about 100 members, but not everyone comes to meetings. Some people just like to support from afar. I think you are right, Far Side: she probably just wasn't as active. But in hindsight, I really wish now that I had had a chance to get to know her. She sounded like a really interesting person.


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