The Lies Our Ancestors Told Us

In an interesting newspaper editorial, Sarri Gilman in the The Herald talked about the lies her grandparents told her:

It is disappointing when beliefs we hold close to our hearts turn out to be not worthy of our aspirations. Sometimes these beliefs, or things we trust to be true, turn out to be mythology, or just one big fat lie.

The big lie I’m trying to cope with right now is something I learned as a child. The lie went like this, “The more responsibility you have, the greater the amount of freedom you will have.”

I think this lie was some sort of allergic reaction to 1960s hippies. Those of us coming of age in 1978 were taught that freedom is not something you find in a psychedelic experience, but rather something you gain through toiling.

Toiling is putting it mildly. We were told to work, work, work, and the reward will be the joy of freedom.

I Googled around to see if this big fat lie was attributed to some famous person, or if it was just my grandfather hammering this into my head.

My mother and I are still “recovering” from our discoveries during the recent trip to Wisconsin to trace her family’s roots. While much of what we uncovered matched the version of family history we’d been told, a lot didn’t add up.

My mother was told (as was I) all of her life how unloved, unappreciated, and overworked her father was growing up with his grandparents and later with his aunt and uncle. She tells of his stories of being all alone and isolated from everyone. Yet, whatever his experience, the reality is that he grew up on an active dairy farm with his grandparents, 11 full and half brothers and sisters, and more than 7 aunts and uncles, and who knows how many nieces and nephews living within two miles of his home He was not alone by a long shot. Touted as the one with the smarts, he was sent off to a boarding school to train teachers. We found photographs of him on various school sports teams and social clubs, belying the accuracy of his tales. Sure, he might have felt alone inside, but on the outside, he was surrounded by family and community.

As Gilman’s column says, it comes as a shock when we realize that the myths our ancestors taught us don’t add up to the reality here in the modern world. So it’s more than just the stories, but the beliefs passed down generation after generation. At some point, one generation stops in its repetitive tracks and questions what they were told to believe.

My mother is coping with her revelations, and I’m dealing with mine. I was taught to believe that everyone in our family died either before or just after they turned 55. Yet, I’ve found that other than from epidemics passing through, the majority of our family’s ancestors lived past 80 with many almost reaching 100! I don’t know if I would have lived my life much differently if I’d been taught that, but part of me thinks that I would have lived it much more cautiously. Is this a good or bad thing? Hmm.

I was also raised to believe that we were alone, with no family nearby. I grew up almost completely ignorant of the many cousins I had living within a 5-10 mile range of my home. I’m meeting them today, but we’re overcoming over 40 years of lost time knowing family. Unfortunately, this has trained me not to be very family-oriented, so I’m struggling with my own personal attitudes about what “family” means.

The more I dig into the past, the more I come to understand my own, more recent past, and the more I learn about myself, my beliefs, and my personality. One cousin I recently met could be my sister. Her personality so matches mine in so many ways, I feel like a part of me has been restored to me. It’s very strange, but glorious. We were raised by completely different people in completely different situations, yet she sounds like me and has ideas and opinions that link up perfectly we me. I can see us finishing each other’s sentences as we get to know each other better. Very strange.

So what are you learning about yourself, your values, your beliefs, and your family’s myths as you explore your family tree? Any interesting concepts you’ve had to challenge yourself on?

Most Recent Articles by Lorelle VanFossen

About Lorelle VanFossen

Lorelle VanFossen hosts Family History Blog covering her ancestors and related family members. She is one of the top bloggers in the world, and host of the Lorelle on WordPress, providing WordPress and blogging tips for bloggers of all levels. A popular keynote speaker and trainer, she is also editor, producer, contributor, and official disruptive thinker for Bitwire Media which includes WordCast, Making My Life Network, Stories of Our Journeys, Life on the Road, WordCast Conversations, and the very popular WordCast Podcast.
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