or: How Human Beings are Connected to One Another Through DNA
I’m in the midst of prepping for two up-coming interviews about my proposed Genealogy Adventures television series I’m willing into fruition (despite some meetings with prospective TV production companies, I’m still looking for the right company to work with. It will happen!). Pre-interview questions have been delivered in order for me to prepare my answers. Many of the questions are standard and expected: “How will this show be different from other genealogy and family history programming?”, “Will the show have an African American focus?” and “What are your credential in presenting the show?” They are all easy to answer: ‘here’s the show’s synopsis and key lines’, ‘no’ and ‘read my blog’.
There’s one question, in particular, that I’ve been mulling over as part of the preparation process. It’s a simple enough question: “What do you hope to achieve through the show?” This question forms the basis of this post as I’d like to share it with a wider audience than the people who read or subscribe to the magazines in question.
This journey, the journey of ancestral discovery and what that means to me, has been a profoundly affirming one. I hope to inspire others to embark on a similar kind of journey of discovery. I think I’ve started this in a small way with this blog. At least many of the comments left here would indicate that. I hope to inspire and enable people to re-connect with lost branches of their family. Again, this blog speaks for itself in that regard. I hope people will share what their journey has meant to them.
Yet, there’s something deeper than all of this.
My journey brought me to an unexpected destination. Believe me when I say that when I started all of this, it was an outcome I could have never expected. I’ve learned something about myself through uncovering lost kinsmen and women and sharing their stories and histories. It’s given me a deeper identity. It led to me taking a comprehensive DNA test which has been, without being dramatic about it, life changing. I know where I come from. I may not have names to associate with these results…but I know where my most ancient ancestors came from. I know where their descendants live in the world today. I don’t care that vast swathes of time and space separate us. These people are my kin.
That knowledge has changed my perceptions of myself and my view of the world and those who live on it. There’s no going back. There’s only going deeper for me. That is an important aspect of the TV series I’d like to involve the viewer in…and then encourage them to embark on something similar for themselves. You don’t have to physically travel to far flung and remote places in the world – although this will be the basis of the show for me – you can use that powerful medium called the internet to find out about them yourself. And that’s what I’d love to happen: for viewers to tap into something fundamentally profound and affirming.
I’ve always been interested in world events. I can thank my parents for that. It’s the kind of household I grew up in. Yet, I never felt a direct connection to world events. I was simply an American and ‘all that stuff’ was simply ‘over there’ somewhere. It was remote. Whatever happened ‘over there’ couldn’t affect me over here. Now, however, when I hear reports from countries like China, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Israel, Sweden, India, the Congo, Korea, etc. it’s not on a merely humanitarian or social consciousness or intellectual / academic basis (dirty words to some). My DNA directly connects me to these places…and more. I can’t say I have a personal stake in these countries. I’d never claim that. I don’t live in these places nor can I appreciate the nuances within societies I’ve never directly experienced. And quick visits to some of them don’t count. Yet, stories coming out of these places, both good and bad, touch me in a way they didn’t before. There’s a connection in some unnameable manner – or a very nameable manner someone with a better vocabulary than I possess or a deeper understanding of sociology and/or anthropology than I do could probably explain.
That DNA test has a lot to answer for!
When you think about it, who needs time machines. Each and every one of us is a living time machine. You, me – every human being on the planet – we are the physical representation and the living expression of ancient genetics stretching back tens of thousands of years. Our genetics, the very fabric of who we are as individuals and what we are as a species, connects us to a past so remote in time that it boggles the mind to contemplate it. Just think about that for a moment and tap into that energy. Visualize an unbroken line of ancestors that stretches back 100 years. Start with your parents and their siblings (if they have them), then their parents and their siblings, and their parents and their siblings and so on.
Then try to go back 500 years. It doesn’t matter if you run out of actual names and faces to remember. Just sense those older generations. Mentally go back in time: 1700 CE, 1600 CE, 1500 CE and then 1400 CE. Think about these (probably nameless) people. They had hopes, desires, loves, fears, dislikes, strife, troubles and achievements – some of the basic things that make us human. Emotions and feelings haven’t changed.
If you’re feeling ambitious, try to imagine an unbroken chain of ancestors reaching back a thousand years. OK, I’ll give you a helping hand here. I apologise in advance for the ethnic-specific analogy. It’s the quickest and easiest one I have to hand to illustrate a point. If you are of European descent, or have any European ancestral connections, focus on Charlemagne, that Frankish king who lived approximately (scholars and historians can’t quite agree on these dates) between 742 CE and 814 CE. As of 2012 he had an estimated 1 trillion descendants. 1 trillion human beings genetically connected to one another through one person’s DNA alone. Sorry, I’m going to say that one again: 1 trillion human beings! That’s exponentially more human beings than those who were on the planet in Charlemagne’s lifetime. That’s more than the estimated 7 billion people alive today.
Now cast your mind back five thousand years and then ten thousand years ago. Still feeling ambitious? Go for fifteen, twenty, and thirty and up to fifty thousand years ago. Own that feeling. Really own it. Don’t back away from it. Open yourself up to it and embrace it. Now this is the bit that always sends a sliver of a chill up and down my spine. If you can really tap into the energy from envisioning an unbroken genetic inheritance reaching back fifty thousand years ago…think about all of the other family lines connected to those ancient ancestors. It doesn’t matter that we can never know the exact number of family lines connected to these shared ancient ancestors. Just know they exist and try your best to sense them.
Think about all of the peoples and cultures that also share that same DNA inherited from those ancestors. The living descendants from those ancient family lines will be found all around the planet today. People you will never meet, will never know, who have a different skin colour to your own, different religious beliefs, different political opinions, different ideologies, different day-to-day experiences from your own – are connected to you through a tiny little thing called DNA. Who knows, through serendipity or whatever name you chose to call it, their descendants can live in the same town and city as you. They can be the person sitting two seats in front of you on the subway or on the bus or in the movie cinema or in your favourite restaurant. The descendants of those ancient people who gave you your DNA could be any body.
Then ask yourself what it really means to be white, yellow, red, black or brown – the qualifiers which quantifies the day to day living for so many people. The qualifiers upon which so many are judged. Ask yourself what it is to be catholic, protestant, jewish, muslim, hindu, shinto or any other religion or a specific denomination of a religion. What I mean by this is that no matter who we are, the color of our skin, the faith we observe, our gender, our physical ability, our cognitive ability – any and all of the things we use to define ‘difference’ – we are all the same under the skin and bound to one another through the simple fact that we are all human. DNA does not lie. That is the inconvenient truth.
Once you tap into that energy, once you have that image in your head, you will never look at yourself, the world, your place in it and your fellow human beings in quite the same way ever again.
Oh I get it, there will always be those who will never put themselves up for such an experience. The prospect will be too terrifying or too difficult or they’re too wedded to the status quo of focusing on self-interest, ego and playing upon the superficial things that apparently make human beings different from one another. They make their money or they base their ‘power’ on perpetuating a cult based on racial, religious, cultural, ethnic or economic ‘difference’. That’s their choice. That’s their loss. That’s their lie.
DNA doesn’t lie. Don’t believe me? Take a DNA test, a proper DNA test, and find out for yourself. What cultures and people does your ancient DNA connect you to? Is it that war-torn region on the other side of the planet? Is it that group of people in a country stricken by famine or drought? The inhabitants of that island ravaged by a cyclone? Is it that tribe perched on the edge of extinction due to excessive logging or the destruction of huge swathes of rainforest to produce soy? Is it that person being paid a non-living wage in your local multi-national owned store?
When we use a racial, cultural, religious or ethnic slur to describe someone – is it that person?
I did say – when you embark on this mental journey, you will never see yourself, those around you or the wider world in quite the same way ever again. And I make no apology for it :o)
And that is one of the things I wish to give through the programme. You’ll see me experience this first hand. And because I have a face that betrays everything that I think and feel (lol both a blessing and a curse!), you will feel what I feel as I experience it.
That’s what I hope will be the transformative power of TV.
Am I naïve enough to think this will lead to an overnight change in how we interact with each other as a species? No. Can it be a (hopefully) step in the right direction? Absolutely. Like anything, the process of change, and the momentum that builds behind it, requires mass and volume. Simply put, the more people who experience this kind of personal epiphany, that ‘light bulb’ moment, the more perceptions will change and the velocity of that change quickens. As an educator, I live for those moments. And I love how that energy, how that moment, takes on a life force of its own in the classroom and heads off in directions even I couldn’t have imagined. That’s magic.
So think about this if you happen to catch an episode with me gallivanting around the globe like some kind of Indiana Jones and living with some remote tribe of people no one knows anything about for a few weeks – learning about their ways and customs and then living as a member of their culture. Knowledge and shared experiences will be the real treasure. All of this and more will be swirling around my head during filming. Through all the comedy, funny humiliating moments, failures and achievements, and educational bits: I hope the viewers will get what the experience is in and of itself. And share those experiences with me. Share the adventures with me. And then think about what the experience would mean for you.
And hopefully, you’ll have an adventure of your own.