Some days start off this way. Perhaps after deep and unsettling dreams. Or after a night of heavy drinking, prescription painkillers or tranquillisers. It’s a familiar feeling but one which is always startling and profound. That moment when you first wake up and remember that you are alive, and that you are who you are, and exist in the world as a conscious being. And simultaneously, that one day you will no longer exist and will never wake again. In that fleeting moment of conscious awakening, the joy and the agony of life seem fused together in an indivisible unit, and we dimly recognise the mystery of existence and acknowledge the strange hinterland that we sometimes inhabit between being and nothingness.
We are here for such a brief moment then gone forever. What shall we do with our time? What shall we do today? Will we make a difference one way or the other? And if we really could make a difference, what would we do?
How did you get here anyway? The odds are so impossibly stacked against the fact of your own existence it makes you feel quite giddy just thinking about it. Imagine for a minute your own parents. What were the chances of them ever meeting in the first place? At any time some small event may have happened to change the whole trajectory of their lives. Even some insignificant circumstance may have made all the difference. What if he or she had taken a different turn the day they first met? Left instead of right? What if he had not been wearing his lucky shirt? What if she had never asked him to dance? What if their eyes had never met across the dance floor? Or if he or she had left with another pretty girl or boy instead?
And the mystery of love which can never be understood. What is it that brings two people together? Sometimes love is a slow burn which grows more intense with each passing day until it can no longer be contained and the spark becomes a forest fire out of control. Sometimes it strikes like lightning or two planets colliding. Is it fate or chance? Are our lives and loves written in the stars? Or is love just a chemical reaction in the brain, as the scientific determinists like to tell us?
What about that magical moment when your parents made love? That one time among all others that led to your conception and birth. And think of all the other eggs that could have been. And that one lucky sperm, swimming the race of it’s life towards a date with destiny.
When you think of your own family history you tend to only think of those closest to you. Parents and grandparents. Siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins. We know the stories of our close family members and the details of our recent history. Grandparents are often an invaluable source of stories from a more distant era. These oral tales which lead us back through time may be confirmed or contradicted by other family members. Sometimes there is a paper trail that can lead back to earlier generations.
Genealogy is a fascinating subject. With time and patience, determination and luck you can trace the contours of your history through time and place back through the generations for hundreds of years. The chances are that you never knew the names of your great-grandparents, or your great-great-grandparents, and all their children, and their husbands and wives. Census information, birth and death certificates, parish records and newspaper reports are all sources of information from which you can discover your family tree and learn more about the lives of your predecessors and ancestors.
I got the chance recently to read about my own family history: the Burke/Crookston/Ewing family line, compiled some years ago by one of my uncles. It was fascinating to learn about our Irish roots through Thomas Burke and his son Thomas who moved from Ireland in the 1820s. Thomas the younger became a quarryman in an area called ‘Hailes Village’ and was the first of the Burke’s to settle in Scotland. The Leith connection in Edinburgh with Thomas Burke’s son Robert, a law clerk, and his large family was interesting too. And I was very moved to find out about the bravery of our distant aunt, Jackie (Joan) Crookston, murdered by the British army in 1797 for protesting against the forced conscription of young Scots, and proud to learn that there’s now a monument in her name to commemorate the massacre of Tranent. It’s striking how big the families were back in previous times and heartbreaking to discover how many of our relatives died at such a young age. Especially with the tuberculosis epidemic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My great uncle, Fredrick Ross Burke died of tuberculosis at the age of 17 on 17th June, the day of my own birthday. It was the year 1901.
I must admit I hadn’t realised quite how many direct ancestors we all have. I know it should be logical when you think about it, with the number of grandparents doubling each generation back, but there’s something quite mind boggling about it too. If you are interested to learn more about this issue there’s a phenomenon called the Ancestor Paradox (links below) which will really blow your mind!
Reading about the lives of your ancestors makes you realise all the more how improbable your own individual existence is in the first place, and that the chances of being born at all are so infinitesimally small. Just like the lives of your parents, any changes (large or small) down the generations could have wiped out your entire family line at any time. Life is a lottery, that’s for sure. And sometimes it also seems like a miracle too, even when it depends on a cruel twist of fate. I cried when I read about my great-great-grandfather’s first wife Lillias Smith, who died so young in 1860 at the age of 21, just six days after the birth of her third child. And to think that if she had not died, Robert Burke would never have met Jessie Crombie my great-great grandmother, and none of my family would be here now. Thank you Lillias Smith from the bottom of my heart. I will always remember you and give thanks for your short life. Your death meant that my great-grandfather, and my grandfather and my father could all be born. And one day I would be born too.
So just for today, whatever you do, and whoever you are, and whether or not you make any difference in the world – just be thankful that you are here at all. And remember the generations past and all our ancestors and how we are all connected. All the living and all the dead.
Today you have no right to complain about your life. Today you have no right to be bored. Do something good for someone you love. Or do something good for yourself.
27 December 2018
Notes on the Ancestor Paradox by Brian Pears
Our Ancestors, Conceptions, Misconceptions and a Paradox
The Ancestor Paradox Revisited
The Ancestor Paradox Yet Again
Thanks to Tommy Burke and Keith Fowkes for their painstaking research into the Burke/Crookston/Ewing family history.
PS If you’d rather not think about any of this stuff and would prefer to just chill out for a while. Listen to this brilliant song by The Lovely Eggs. It’s the perfect antidote to all tedious philosophical reflections about life, existence and the universe.