What is Human?

As I’ve been writing up the details of different individuals for our genealogy website, there are times when the question of censorship comes up.

For example, the comment, “He was an alcoholic and womanizer,” may have been stated by someone and recorded in the raw notes that I review. Does that belong in the family story?

The notes from which I work are like those a reporter might take. They form the basis of a new article and, like a reporter and the editor that reviews the finished material before publication, I have to pick and choose what to keep and what to skip.

One rubric might be emotional content. When someone says something that seems to be very judgmental or highly emotional, I could use that as a criterion for exclusion.

“Just the facts, Mam,” Sargent Joe Friday might say.

But feelings are what make us human. They drive our actions, our associations and how we view life itself. Emotions drive how we relate to each other. They tinge our words and color our actions.

Families are more than facts. Much more.

The fact that Cousin Wilfred, let’s say, was born on such-and-such a date and had a certain vocation, lived at some address for a while, married so-and-so and retired in yet another but very specific location, those are all facts.

These are the places, times, people and events that Cousin Wilfred experienced, but they aren’t Cousin Wilfred.

If Cousin Wilfred’s feelings are left out, then the picture of Cousin Wilfred is incomplete. And if the opinions of others aren’t included, again, the picture is incomplete. (Of course, someone’s opinion about Cousin Wilfred may well tell us more about that person rather than about Cousin Wilfred.)

Cousin Wilfred’s life is a sequence of events, choices, actions and consequences. Events happened to Cousin Wilfred and, through them, Cousin Wilfred made choices, took actions and discovered the consequences thereof. It is through those choices, actions and consequences that we get a much truer impression of who Wilfred really was.

Fiction writers, it is said, often model characters and events on real life. They use people they know, often members of their own family, but then they mix and match appearances, backgrounds and what happened to mask true identities.

That’s fiction. It records the events but the real story, the deeper story is always in the “Why?”

“Why did the butler murder his employer?”

Family genealogy isn’t fiction. It’s real. Cousin Wilfred was born into a certain family and his mother had a very specific background that formed her character and led her to make certain choices in how she raised her son. Similarly, Wilfred’s Dad had a different, but again, specific upbringing that contributed to how he performed as a father.

Without these details, the “picture” we get of an individual is incomplete. Just as a photograph of a family would be incomplete if we blotted out a face or two or blurred the background of the grandparent’s porch on which they sat, so too the “portrait” of an individual will be incomplete if we leave out feelings.

My great-grandmother Bessie is in the upper-right corner of the above picture with her family. George, her husband, is in the center and they are gathered on the steps of their family home “Braeside” in Guelph, Ontario.

In her teens, Bessie sailed across the Atlantic from Liverpool England with her family of origin. That voyage, powered solely by the wind, lasted six weeks.

Six weeks!

What did they eat for six weeks?

Was it as palatable after a month as it was in the beginning?

How about the “fresh” water?

What did they do all day, every day, in the confined space of deck when the weather was nice, or “below” when it wasn’t?

When there was a rush, did they draw lots, to see who got to use the “head” first? I wonder at their heavy clothing, no doubt needed for the weather, but which must have been a struggle at such times.

And when something in the galley caught the ship on fire and they feared it might sink, Bessie says her parents divided their coins between mother and father hoping that at least one of them might survive. (The fire was controlled; the ship didn’t sink.) Obviously that incident made quite an impression on the young Bessie and, over several generations, it was retold many times before finding its way here and into the family genealogy website.

And when Typhoid broke out on the ship and they were quarantined at Grosse Isle for weeks as others came down with, and some died from, that terrible disease but which Bessie and her brothers and sisters and parents all escaped, that too left its mark on her character.

All of those events shaped Bessie.

And she, in turn, with her unique experiences, shaped the children and the grandchildren you see in that photograph.

And no doubt George, Bessie’s husband who is seated at the center of the family, had his own “shape” which he applied, consciously or unconsciously, to their descendents.

We are shaped by events, yes, but we are also shaped by the choices we make and by the consequences of those choices.

As humans, we make choices with certain expectations in mind and quite often, the results are favorable; we get what we want.

Most people work for “favorable to many” results.

But sometimes, hopefully only rarely, there are those who do something harmful to others. From their personal and decidedly very selfish viewpoint, that outcome is, they might say, “favorable to me.”

In other words, they do something cruel, and are glad of it.

There are those in our society who do mean and cruel things to others. In an old movie, the actor Richard Widmark, playing one such vicious character, shoves an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs and snickers to himself as she crashes down.

And in real life, frustration and anger may sometimes boil over into overt, terrible acts. That’s human. It’s part of the human story.

Lucille Mullinaux, seen here, is from my wife’s side. She was murdered along with her husband by his former wife.

That’s family, too.

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