by Rachel Coleman
Knowing, recording, and preserving your family history directly impacts you, your family, and even future generations of people you may never know. Find out how and why family history matters.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” —Marcus Garvey
The United States celebrates October as National Family History Month and for good reason. Knowing, recording, preserving, and sharing our family histories can provide countless benefits to individuals, families, and entire societies. Family history is more than pedigree charts, censuses, and birthdates—it can be a powerful antidote against adverse life experiences that we face today, giving us a stronger understanding of who we are and motivating us to deepen our roots for generations to come.
Knowing our cultural background and where we came from can help us develop a strong sense of who we really are. The way we relate to our family stories and create our own narratives about ourselves helps establish our unique, authentic core identity.
Human beings desire attachment, belonging, and connection. The relationships we form with other people can be incredibly durable, not only with people in our present, but also with people in our past and future. The more we discover about our past, the greater a connection we feel to our ancestors. As we record our own history, we open the opportunity for future generations to connect with us when we are gone.
In a popular TED talk entitled, Everything You Think You Know about Addiction Is Wrong, British journalist Johann Hari teaches that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection. Connecting with members of our family past and present by learning their history fills an innate need in each one of us.
Learning the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced, and it often inspires greater love and compassion for their flaws and mistakes. This compassion can easily translate to our relationships with the living, within our families and outside them. We all face hard things. Remembering that fact in the context of others’ shortcomings allows us to be better employees, managers, spouses, parents, children, siblings, and human beings.
Knowing our family history builds resilience. In learning about our ancestors’ lives, we can see patterns of overcoming failures and surviving hard times. Their stories remind us that surely not everything in life will work easily, that disappointments occur and inequalities exist, but that we can recover, triumph, and find happiness despite hardships.
Bruce Feiler, in an article for the New York Times, summarizes a study about the resilience of children: “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. [It] turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
William Dade was an 18th-century cleric in Yorkshire, England. Although he never married and had no children of his own, he promoted the practice of including as much information as possible in parish registers. Because of his efforts, many registers of this period contain rich information for genealogists. Amy Harris, a family history professor at Brigham Young University, refers to this type of selfless effort as genealogical consciousness. The act of being aware of and having a sense of responsibility to our ancestors, progenitors, and all of future humankind is an act of altruistic selflessness.
The ability to cooperate and act selflessly is unique to humanity. Harris teaches that it is what allows us to harness the “power of millions and billions.” Learning our history, recording it, and preserving it blesses not only our related family, but the entire human family.
As we dive into our own family histories, we see events unfold on both a large scale and a personal scale. Contemplating the enormity of mankind while reading about the hand of the Lord in our ancestors’ lives bears record to us of His concern and immense love for each of us personally. Our worth and value is great in His sight. We are loved and known by Him.
Our family history goes beyond the names and dates we find in our tree. It’s about what makes us who we are. It’s about people with whom we can form deep connections. It’s about people who lived and breathed and suffered and triumphed. It’s about roots and branches and leaves and entire forests. It’s about all of us.