Miracles Should Not Be Taken for Granted

If we are fortunate, there are a handful of “big” things we accomplish in life that have great meaning to us. They may take years or decades to achieve, probably seem impossible when we start, but invariably involve the assistance of people we’d never otherwise have had the opportunity to know, but who enrich our lives and make us better people.

I’ve had a few such experiences in my life. One of these was in the area of genealogy, something in which a lot of people have developed an interest, especially as the Internet has made access to digitized records simple so that one can conduct research from the comfort of their homes in their spare time. Genealogists in years past had to take time and make the effort to travel, sometimes great distances, to piece together their family histories.

Anyway, my interest in genealogy was predicated on a simple desire. I wanted to know the proper spelling of my surname, which sounds simple enough, but was something that was debated within the family as different American branches spelled the name in one of two ways. Interestingly, in the end, there was a simple and definitive answer. None of us spelled the family name as it would have been written in Polish, where there was no debate on the proper spelling. None. So, I simply concluded that we in this country are all wrong, though our ancestors correctly concluded that retaining the Polish spelling in English would have mangled badly the proper pronunciation. Thus, probably, in the end they all did the right thing, albeit with a couple of variations, which gives us something to argue about and debate. Or, to begin a really rewarding journey of personal and historical research, as was the case for me.

Genealogical research always comes with surprises, though I’ve yet to encounter the “disturbing” surprises that some people invariably find. Especially in the era of DNA testing, many people find that people they have been very close to aren’t actually genetically related to them. Some find that they have entire sets of relations that they knew nothing about. Sometimes these findings are received warmly, but sometimes they can be devastating.

Likewise, some find criminals in their past—which can be fun for genealogists as they tend to leave a rich paper trail—and sometimes you simply find ancestors who are unsavory to the point of profound disappointment. As has been spoken by wiser people than myself, though, your ancestor’s guilt does not extend to you. We all have thousands of relatives over just a few centuries and they’re not all angels. You own neither their greatnesses nor bear the burdens of their failings.

I didn’t find much in the way of things that were shocking or disturbing in my family history. A couple unsettling types of things, for sure, but the branches I thought I’d find were the branches I found. Largely straightforward.

What I found surprising, though in hindsight it should have been totally obvious, is that I couldn’t take my ancestors out of history. That is, I had believed that people more or less pursued their own lives and “history” was something that affected them, albeit tangentially. This turned out to not be the case at all, especially as it related to why my various branches had decided to emigrate to America.

I have a mixture of Polish, Irish, English, German, and French ancestry. I cannot find a historical reason for my English ancestors, other than economic opportunity, to have emigrated. In all the other cases, though, the decisions were obvious for any decent student of history. My Polish ancestors came from what is today part of southeastern Lithuania, but was then part of Russia, right before the outbreak of the first World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. The immigrants who came spoke not only of their poor treatment by the Russian authorities, but went as far as to fake their children’s vital records in America so that they could not be abducted and returned to Russia, which is something they honestly feared.

My French predecessors were Huguenots, who were Protestants persecuted by the Catholic rulers of the time in that country, the Irish came to avoid the mass starvation of the Potato Famine, and my German relatives left the Stuttgart region during the religious revolutions of 1848. The latter group settled initially outside of Philadelphia and were practicing Quakers.

In each of these cases, though, the history of the day had a profound impact on individual behavior. As I said, this should not have surprised me, but it did.

The other thing you learn as you pursue genealogy is how pervasive is the impact of death. Death is part of life, plain and simple. But, in 21st century America, very few of us have any “real” conception of what death means when it is a constant in daily life. We experience death, but for most of us it affects us far less than it did those who came before us.

My uncle and I were corresponding recently about family history—interestingly within the context of an upcoming birth, which actually happened this morning (welcome, Emmett!) and, thus, becomes a new chapter in that history—and I stumbled across a record of an infant’s death. Based on the name, he had thought it to be the death of his father’s older brother. However, I knew that the years were wrong and even had in my possession the death certificate of his father’s brother, who had actually been a toddler when he died. The deaths were separated by less than a decade, however, and occurred among different related families, but on the same street where multiple branches lived, so his error was an easy one to make.

Because of that, we got to discussing child mortality, which is something any genealogist will find, especially as they go further back into time. My grandfather’s toddler brother was killed by diphtheria, a disease for which we now have a highly effective vaccine. My ancestors would have known all about this disease, and many other childhood illnesses, while I have never had to concern myself with its potential danger to my own children. I had to look up diphtheria to understand how my granduncle had died. My great-grandparents would have had that knowledge as a simple result of being parents.

My parents are both in the 80s and were considerably exposed to the coronavirus over this past Christmas week. And, by exposed I absolutely mean highly exposed, to the point where I was certain that they would become ill. However, neither did. Not even a sniffle. My best guess is that they had received the initial two doses of the vaccine as soon as they could and received their boosters just after Thanksgiving. Thus, I reason, their antibodies must have been at or near their peak levels and they were able to avoid any kind of illness whatsoever.

This, to me, is a miracle, or maybe multiple miracles. First, it’s amazing that we live in a time when we can quickly develop cutting edge vaccines in the midst of a global pandemic. Second, that they could work arrive so quickly, especially for people for whom the virus is quite potentially dangerous. Yet, at the same time, we read about these vaccines and the divisions they’ve created on a daily basis despite overwhelming evidence of safety and effectiveness. I can’t obviously speak definitively for my long dead great-grandparents, but my strong suspicion is that they and their contemporaries would have welcomed both diphtheria and other vaccines.

As one thinks about such things, it becomes clearer and clearer that we exist in an age of miracles. America itself is a miracle. It’s not an accident that my oppressed ancestors from all over Europe decided to come to this country. There was an implicit promise for my ancestors that in America you could freely be a Protestant or a Quaker if that’s how you wished to worship. There was a promise that your family could escape hunger and establish new roots from Pennsylvania to Montana or anywhere in between. There was a promise that you’d be safe from the changing whims of royal czars and revolutionary communists, both of whom would tell you how to live such that you’d be unlikely to escape a hard life of subsistence farming.

The industrial revolution is a miracle as is global capitalism. Fewer people live in deep poverty today than at any time in human history. Capitalism is flawed, but it works. We can communicate and connect with people around the world nearly effortlessly. I stay in touch with very distant cousins who still farm in the same region of Lithuania as did family members I knew. They farmed in the same communities for centuries, my immediate ancestors as recently as 110 years ago.

Because of safety measures, a fraction of people die in their workplace than did just a century ago. Homes are safer, too. Smarter laws and enforcement have reduced fatalities from other people’s negligence, such as drunk driving. Safety standards have made transportation safer across the board for times when accidents do invariably happen.

Given the choice between living today as a middle-class American or a European king in his castle a century or two ago, there is no choice in my mind. I’d choose my existence today without so much as a second thought.

But, yet, everywhere you look in our world you find negativity and despair. With all the progress we’ve made in so many facets of life, how could we all be feeling so badly about our world?

The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. If there were one, though, I think it would be about choices, individually and collectively, that we’ve not made as well as we should have.

There are many things over which we have no control. But, we do get to decide how we treat others. We do choose how we treat ourselves. Our behavior belongs to us and nobody else. Our collective behavior belongs to all of us and nobody else. We own it, for better and for worse.

Additionally, our behavior and choices are often too easily influenced by others. Choosing to receive and accept a poor influence is a choice. One that will not serve you well, at least in the long run, but one that is ultimately under our control. And, that’s they key: we get to choose our actions (and our reactions).

The world has never had a better set of tools with which to build a better world. But making a great world requires that we consciously make that choice and that we find a way to work (hard) together to create the world in which we want to live. I suspect that for most of us that world looks remarkably similar, at least in the ways that fundamentally matter.

So, how do we get there? My suspicion is that we once again discover the value of our communities and the value we can bring to our communities. As the pandemic ultimately recedes, we need to leave our “screens” at home and get back amongst each other face to face. Human contact matters, as it always has, but in an age of unwanted separation and over-engagement with the false worlds embodied in and by social media, being together physically is just hugely important.

I’ve long held as a core belief that you “either show up or shut up.” People who make no attempt to contribute to their world have no right in my estimation to comment on it, so disregard all the people who flood social media with commentary but offer no substantive gifts to our world. Voices without action are meaningless.

So, scratch your community itch and do so without trepidation and with a broad and inclusive definition of community. Join a sports league, a gardening club, a church, a civic group, a theater company, a historical society, a book club, a music group, or any other positive meeting of people that holds your interest. If such a group does not exist, start one. It has not been my experience that you’ll fail to find others with similar interests that would like to get together.

You’ll be shocked at the miracles that arise when regular people all work together in uncountable groups to achieve small things. Miracles don’t just happen, though. They require that we first show up and show up willing to contribute. This, I think, is our greatest hope. We just need to choose to use the tools and resources that we already possess.