A recent study conducted by a British organization called OnePoll finds that one-third of Americans cannot even name all four of their grandparents. If this is accurate, far fewer know where their grandparents were born, the nature of the work that they did, or the things that they found interesting.
Reflecting on this poll brings to mind the Fourth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.” (Exodus 20:12)
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The “Postmodern” Family
What does it mean to honor your father and mother in the “postmodern” world?
During the sixties, the family was redefined as a “nuclear” social unit composed of individuals not necessarily married. This was one of the ill effects of the sexual revolution.
The roots of this redefinition go back to the Industrial Revolution. Before large-scale migration, farm villages and small towns were really networks of relatives. Aunts, uncles, and cousins of various degrees of kinship were also friends, neighbors, and the members of the parish church. The admonition to honor one’s parents was easily extended to all of the elders in the community.
Once people traveled to industrial centers in search of jobs, that sense of family disintegrated. When a man left his village, he took his wife and his children with him. In the new place, everyone was a stranger. By the mid-twentieth century, such movements happened every generation – maybe several times during a single generation.
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Individualism Versus Family
Another effect of this social change was given the unfortunate phenomenon of “the generation gap.” Since the childhood and adolescent experiences of each generation differed from those of their parents, the already-shrunken family degenerated further into a collection of individuals.
This gave rise to a contemporary society that exaggerates the importance of individual liberty to the point that any remaining sense of familial obligation and family tradition is rapidly disappearing.
It is no longer unusual for three siblings to live in three different parts of the country. The increased incidence of divorce and “remarriage” means that there is often a reshuffling of family members as parents separate and then join themselves to others who have children of their own. Each such occurrence makes any family connection more tenuous. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins become little more than names of a person that one met once or twice years ago. For many, apparently, even the names have been forgotten (or were never known).
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Despite the individualism of the modern world, there is something implanted in our nature by God that desires family. Many long for something more than the isolation of modern individualism.
A strange manifestation of this desire can be seen in a new type of Christmas holiday advertisement. The advertiser is a service that tests DNA to tell people about their various nationalities. Now that service has been extended to matching people whose DNA strains are so closely matched that they must be biologically related to each other. While the voiceover explained the service, the advertisement showed people sharing a holiday with a “family” consisting of people that they had never met before the DNA test.
In the age of the Internet, helping people discover their ancestors has become a big business. The desire to know about one’s lineage is not new. The ancient Israelites referred to themselves as “sons of Abraham.” The New Testament begins with the ancestral line of the foster-father of Our Lord. This is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many pagan cultures not only kept records of ancestors but worshipped them.
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Family is a Universal Desire
Until recently, the way to learn the history of the family was in the reminiscences of an older family member. These would be shared in a natural way around the table, at bedtime, or when the memory was jogged by the occurrence of a similar situation.
This is the way in which the first Christian generations passed on the faith. There is speculation that the differences in the gospels are partially explained by the various interests of four Evangelists. According to this explanation, Saint Luke provided the most complete narrative of the nativity because he was especially interested in the childhood of Jesus. We can imagine Saint Luke asking Our Lady about Our Lord’s birth, and her pleasure in relating those events that she had spent years, “pondering in her heart.” (Luke 2:19.)
The Lack of Contact Between Generations
In our generation, those natural occasions are far too uncommon. Too many grandparents desire leisure in a Florida condominium more than living near the grandchildren in Ohio. One unfortunate outcome is the lack of occasions to share the stories of their youths with those grandchildren.
This lack of contact between generations has not however diminished the desire to know about them. As people age, they naturally want to know about those who came before.
The Digital Substitute
The Age of the Internet is replete with digital substitutes for basic human relationships. A “friend” is as likely to be found on Facebook as in one’s neighborhood, school, workplace, or parish. “Followers” are accumulated on Twitter. Many use the Internet to try to find the “perfect” spouse. Increasingly, people also use it to find their ancestors.
Once such genealogical website presents three presumably typical stories in which the potential customer can hear about the discoveries that others have made about their own families. All three related stories show how they found ancestors with shared interests or traits of character that helped them understand themselves. The appeal is purely selfish.
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This sort of family makes no demands on the individual. It can satisfy nostalgic longings and then be put away when inconvenient. Those computer-generated ancestors do not put the researcher inside a family narrative in which the individual might be called upon to further a family tradition. Individuals feel no obligation to live up to family standards or to think in terms of those who will follow them in the future. Such ancestors can be ignored without creating any guilt. All this provides some comfort but makes no demands.
Using the Internet to search for a connection with the past can help that one third of Americans who cannot name their grandparents. However, it cannot convey that human element that is so important in developing social relationships. That personal link with the past through relatives and families stories provides much more context than an electronic search engine. Family tradition is much more engaging than an isolated incident unearthed by a genealogical website. Honoring the memory of one’s father and mother is much more than recognizing their DNA makeup.
There is no harm in wanting to know the names of ancestors, along with a few facts about them. Just don’t mistake a virtual family for the real thing.