Welcome, sibling! Have you ever contributed to a genealogy online? I know not everyone’s into their ancestry, but there’s enough of the treasure-hunt to it, and enough mystery to keep you turning the pages. Some time ago—it was when I was a professor, because I actually had some leisure time—I posted a bit on WikiTree. WikiTree is a free communal effort to map the world of relationships. Just about every week there’s a newsletter emailed around, offering how many degrees of separation you are from someone famous. Often this is tied into the news cycle, so recently Prince Philip was among those measured. Then Carrie Fisher. Without fail, over the past several weeks, the family member through whom I’m connected to the famous is a great uncle. The same great uncle.
I usually lose interest when the relationship starts to get to siblings and spouses. There are webs everywhere. Still, this intrigued me. I’d never knowingly heard of this great uncle (and certainly never met him) but he was under 20 degrees of separation from several famous people. It made me consider how you never can tell what relationships might lead to connections. My direct ancestors, as far as I know, were all humble, work-a-day sorts. One branch of the family had an engineer a couple generations removed, but for the most part they were farmers, laborers, truck drivers, and such. The web of human relationships includes everyone, of course. At some point in our family trees, we share a common ancestor, be they Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon (or a blending of the two). When we harm or hate another person we’re harming or hurting a sibling, distant or close.
Getting along with everyone may be too much for which to hope, but at least tolerating seems worth stretching for. I once found a long-lost cousin. This was accompanied by a wonderful feeling of having found a family I didn’t even know. Genealogy made that particular reunion possible. Before that I might have passed this cousin as a stranger on the street. It made me stop and think. Is that stranger actually someone related? Traveling back to the areas my ancestors lived I occasionally glimpse a face that could be a distant uncle or aunt. My mental calculus kicks in, but there’s really no way to know just how close they might be. Now, if I were my unknown great uncle chances might be somewhat better that I’m only a degree or two removed. Even so, I should try to treat the stranger as though that were the case.