The past, the present and our true identity

On the 160th anniversary of my great-grandfather's birth, I stood on the ruined foundation of the small Irish house and mill in which he had been born in Donegal, writes Joan Chittister in NCR.

A piece of granite from that foundation now sits on my desk - a monument to both the past and the future. It was a long time coming. I've wondered for years where my family was really from and how we got here and what happened to the families our ancestors left behind.

Then one day in December I opened my email to find a letter that began, "I am your fourth cousin." Thirty-two pages of single-space type poured out of my printer, describing one generation after another, down to my own birth date. Most of them were people I did not know but for whom I felt a great deal of fascination, admiration, and gratitude.

At that moment, looking at the long chart of my own becoming, the whole notion of what history actually is all about began to simmer and bubble in me -- a very living, a very real thing.

History is, for many, about human pain and human displacement. It is about rulers who abused and misused entire bodies of people for their own ends. It is about the tides of humanity that swept some away with the waves of change and drove others into the darkness of strange places and empty pasts.

It is about people who left a place knowing they could never get back to it and so left no footsteps in the sand -- no stories that bound us to the old; no contacts that continued the ties -- by which later generations might retrace their steps back to the families they were forced to leave behind.

Remembering our past and who we truly want to be (NCR)

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