For many people who have the good fortune to use the internet in productive and purposeful ways, there are opportunities to access many different online archives and search tools. We can, with patience and persistence, even piece together the richness of how our own lives came into being, accumulating more and more intrinsic cultural wealth along the way.
Do you know much about your amazing journey into existence? Some of that story may have been lost over the years as members of earlier generations discarded the "old and worthless" pieces of paper that a future relative, such as yourself, may have truly valued.
Some of the documents and other "sentimental" items of value to us may have been lost over the years when family members quarreled, refused to communicate for various reasons, tried to hide unpleasant facts from each other, and perhaps even destroyed photographs, diaries, stories, needlework and other treasures, often out of ignorance rather than spite.
Items may be lost through the mist of ignorance, anger, or mistrust, yet the heritage for future generations from unique documentary records is priceless. Whether just within families, or within the wider community, our sense of meaning and purpose in life can be enriched by an awareness of our own unique journeys into existence, otherwise known as our family history.
Perhaps your relatives over the centuries discarded a portrait of similar worth to posterity as the Mona Lisa. You may have had an aunt or uncle who threw away a great grandparent's diary, merely because it was written in a language no-one in the family could understand. Do you sometimes wonder if that diary may have had a similar historic and cultural significance to the one by Samuel Pepys?
Read Pepys' Diary
Recently, I was told of two women who thought they were helping their frail, elderly mother to "tidy up". Their idea of the task was certainly very different from my own. They threw away all sorts of old documents accumulated over the years, including a very old and "worthless" calendar containing the dates of births and deaths of several generations of the family. In my view, that is a tragedy!
The women who disposed of their own family history were certainly not illiterate or ill intentioned. They just could not see the value (at least to themselves) in what they viewed as unnecessary clutter.
Their mother had arrived in Australia as a refugee from Hungary after the Second World War and the "clutter" reminded her of far more than the sufferings of the past - the yet unwritten story contained within those items was part of who she was as a person. Her carefully kept treasures had disappeared in an instant, all in the name of "tidying up".
Perhaps many people have little desire to "cling to the past". Yet to me, family history is not really about the past. It is about the present and the future. It takes us to a deeper level of meaning in our lives, and in our relationships with others, especially when many aspects of the world around us can often seem alienating, trivial, uncertain, confusing and even oppressive.
What, for example, can we learn about the world of today from the works of Giotto? The above picture, painted in a fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Padova), Italy around the year 1305, may tell you something about how you view the world, and how you see yourself.
Official website of the Cappella degli Scrovegni
(also known as the Arena Chapel)
We can gain new perspectives on what is important in our lives by comparing ourselves with those whose footsteps and choices brought us physically into the world, and by comparing ourselves with the "cultural ancestors" who produced and preserved the best of our global inheritance and world heritage. You may even see your own life as a work of art. Where do you find inspiration? Where do you find your identity?