Reflections on Life
under the Influence of Ayn Rand
by Roger E. Bissell 

Part 4: Why I Like Genealogy
(A Plagiaristic Parody of Ayn Rand's Essay on Stamp-Collecting)



Part 4: Why I Like Genealogy 

I am often asked why people like genealogy. So widespread a hobby can obviously have many different motives. I can answer only in regard to my own motives, which I have observed also in some of the genealogists I have met.

The pleasure lies in a certain special way of using one's mind. Genealogy is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people -- because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, entirely private world.

A career requires the ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady progression toward a goal. Purposeful people cannot rest by doing nothing; nor can they feel at home in the role of passive spectators. They seldom find pleasure in single occasions, such as a party or a show or even a vacation, a pleasure that ends right then and there, with no further consequences.

The minds of such people require continuity, integration, a sense of moving forward. They are accustomed to working long-range; to them, the present is part of and a means to the future; a short-range event or activity that leads nowhere is an unnatural strain on them, an irritating interruption or a source of painful boredom.

Yet they need relaxation and rest from their constant, single-tracked drive. What they need is another track, but for the same train -- that is, a change of subject, but using part of the same method of mental functioning.

Genealogy fulfills that need.

It establishes a wide context of its own, interesting enough to hold one's attention and to switch one's mind temporarily away from exhausting problems or burdens.

In the course of a career, every achievement is an end in itself and, simultaneously, a step toward further achievements. In genealogy, every new piece of data is an event, a pleasure in itself and, simultaneously, a step toward the growth of someone's family tree. A genealogist is not a passive spectator, but an active, purposeful agent in a cumulative drive. He cannot stand still: a pedigree chart without fresh additions becomes a reproach, an almost irresistible call to embark on a new quest.

In a career, there is no such thing as achieving too much: the more one does, the more one loves one's work. In genealogy, there is no such thing as too much data: the more one gets, the more one wants. The sense of action, of movement, of progression is wonderful -- and habit-forming.

A career requires full, focused attention and problem-solving -- creative problems, technical problems, business problems, etc. So does genealogy: while it is sometimes a process of cashing in on the given and known, it often requires much ingenuity and detective work -- as well as literary skills, once one reaches the point of writing up one's findings for others to read. To the extent that one can find others with insufficient time, energy, or skills to do such research and writing, but with money enough to pay another to do it, one could conceivably do genealogy full-time, not merely as an empty escape -- for an unproductive mind does not need rest -- but actually as an alternate career.

There are also certain differences.

The course of a career depends on one's own action predominantly, but not exclusively. A career requires a struggle; it involves tension, disappointments, obstacles which are challenging, at times, but are often ugly, painful, senseless -- particularly, in an age like the present, when one has to fight too frequently against the dishonesty, the evasions, the irrationality of the people one deals with. In genealogy, one experiences the rare pleasure of independent action without irrelevant burdens or impositions. Nobody can interfere with one's pedigree chart, nobody need be considered or questioned or worried about (though oral interviews of one's elderly relatives can be very helpful). The choices, the work, the responsibility -- and the enjoyment -- are one's own. So is the great sense of freedom and privacy.

For this very reason, when one deals with people as a genealogist, it is on a cheerful, benevolent basis. People cannot interfere, but they can be very helpful and generous. There is a sense of "brotherhood" among genealogists, of a kind which is very unusual today: the brotherhood of holding the same values. In the midst of today's cynical inversion and corruption of all values, one seldom meets a person with whom one has any interest in common; most people today do not actually value or enjoy anything. Genealogists have a wide latitude of individual preferences, but the basic principles of the hobby are objective and clearcut. A genealogist would not reject a copy of his great-great-grandparents' marriage certificate on the grounds that it pertained to an event that occurred over a century ago -- and he would not forego it in favor of six copies of his parents' marriage certificate on the grounds that these were more fashionable since more of one's relatives had them.

The pursuit of the distant, the unexpected, the unknown, the difficult to find is the motive power of genealogy. It endows the hobby with the suspense and excitement of a treasure hunt -- even on the more modest levels of genealogy, where the treasure may be simply an unexpected name or date from a distant relative, which fills the one blank spot, completing a level of one's pedigree.

This mood of lighthearted benevolence is particularly important to people whose careers deal with grim, crucial issues -- as, for instance, a writer who studies the trends of the modern world, or a surgeon who faces the constant question of life and death. It is not an accident that a great many doctors are genealogists.

Careers of that kind require such a ruthless discipline of total dedication that one can become almost depersonalized. This is why an hour spent on an activity whose sole purpose is one's own pleasure, becomes such a restoring, invigorating life line.

When one turns to genealogy, one enters a special world by a process resembling a response to art: one deals with an isolated and stressed aspect of existence -- and one experiences the sense of a clean, orderly, peaceful, sunlit world. Its rules and boundaries are strictly delimited -- the rest is up to one's individual choice. But one does not choose blindly, one deals with firm, intelligible, changeless things. There is constant change in the world of genealogical data, and constant motion, and a spectacular display of human data processing -- but there is no change in the nature and purpose of genealogical data. Nobody tries to claim -- as people do in other fields -- that a discarded grocery receipt from his garbage can is a superior kind of genealogical data. It is not the place for whims. It is not a world for those who like the chaos of undefinable, shifting, whirling, drippy emotions. It is a world for orderly, rational minds.

But -- it is asked -- why not collect cigar bands, or coins, or old porcelain? Why family trees?

Because family trees are the concrete, visible symbols of an enormous abstraction: of the phenomenon of nested, hierarchical order, which permeates not only our conceptual and value hierarchies, but also the "tree of life" by which all living things are descended from a common ancestor, as well as the structures and functions of every living being on earth and of much of inanimate nature.

An inextricable part of even a casual glance at a family tree is the awareness of what a magnificent achievement it represents: for a few pennies, you can have a photocopy of a chart showing your ancestry and numerous relatives to the earliest date they can be traced. Think of the human ingenuity, the technological development, the large-scale synchronization of effort that were required to create the U.S. Government's Federal Archives, the Mormon Church's International Genealogical Index, or Broderbund's World Family Tree. (You may curse the inefficiency or intrusiveness of the U.S. Census Bureau -- and the agencies abroad may be worse -- but look at the total picture of what they have helped to accomplish.)

While the world politicians are doing their best to split the globe apart by means of iron curtains and brute force, the genealogical services are demonstrating -- in their quiet, unobtrusive way -- what is required to bring mankind closer together: a specific purpose (data-gathering) cooperatively carried out, serving individual goals and needs. It is the lineages of individual persons that genealogical data bases preserve through the decades and centuries; it is individual persons that need such a service. In this sense, the Mormon Church with their Family History centers are the world's ambassadors of good will.

Genealogy gives one a large-scale view of the universe -- and a very benevolent view. One feels: no matter how dreadful some of mankind's activities might be, here is a field in which people are functioning reasonably, efficiently and successfully. (I do not mean the political and religious bureaucracies involved, I mean the technical aspects and skills required to gather and store the human race's enormous amount of genealogical data.)

When I hear in the news the surname of some distant relative that I discovered only through my family tree -- such as Cloud or Van Boskirk -- I feel a touch of personal recognition, like an affectionate greeting. One's family tree gives one a personal value-stake, a kind of proprietary interest in certain surnames which, otherwise, would remain mere names and empty abstractions. A family tree is like a tour of human history, with the advantage of focusing selectively on the best aspects of various ancestors, and without the bitter disadvantages.

In conclusion, I want to say a personal "thank you" to a company whose extremely copious goods and services have helped me to find my way in a very complex world: Broderbund Software. The infectiously irresistible enthusiasm they project for the world of genealogy -- in their direct mail literature and on their website --and the glamor of the genealogical establishment they have created give them an unusual position in today's cheerless world: the head of an empire dedicated to human enjoyment.