This is a post about questions, rather than answers, but I believe they are questions worthy of contemplation.
In the whole of your life if you never saw an image of yourself, would you wholly know who you are? What would your perceptions of yourself be?
These questions were inspired by a late 19th century image in Aoife O'Connor's book Small Lives, an image in which a group of farm children from Connemara Ireland are pictured (See the photos here: NLI Tuke Collection). The photographer, Major Ruttledge-Fair, showed the children a copy of a photograph in which they appear. While the children pictured could easily point out their friends in the photograph, they did not recognize themselves in the image. Fair accounted for this lack of recognition saying,
"[The children] know each other at once, but not one recognises himself or herself never having seen that same — looking glasses being unknown." (O'Connor 26)
Those of us who are blessed with eyesight are accustomed to the image in the looking glass each morning, even as that image changes over time. Even without a mirror in the house, like Narcissus, at some point we might find an obliging pond that would reflect back a wavy and watery shape which we would probably recognize as our individual self. Also, for better or worse, we receive 'reflections' of ourselves from friends and family who let us know how we look from their perspective — pale, ruddy, fat, thin, happy, sad — and who they believe we are — brilliant or stupid, succinct or verbose, creative or unimaginative, compassionate or indifferent, and many other things along the continuum between these extremes.
Are we not also reflected through the optic of our family history?
This works on two levels.
First, whose stories do we choose to share, and whose do we leave untended? What do those choices say about us as individuals?
Second, in whom do we see ourselves reflected? Which ancestor or relative do we most resemble, be it in the way that he/she looked, or how we imagine their visage, his/her manner of comportment, or the life he/she led?
Many identify with ancestors who emerged as heroes, whether in the battles fought in wars, or as workers for social justice, or in simply raising the fortunes of the family. However, is it perhaps too easy to see ourselves in the heroes? What if you found someone on your family tree who ended up in a workhouse? Would you be willing and able to see any part of that individual in yourself?
Some of us have ancestors and relatives who have suffered from mental illness. Can we see ourselves reflected in them? Are we able to tell their stories or are they kept under wraps?
As you look at your family tree, with whom do you truly have the most in common?
Who do you believe you would like most of all, and who would you honestly admit disliking?
With whom could you see yourself arguing, and upon whom can you see yourself heaping praise?
If you stepped inside the looking glass and down into your family tree in whom would you see yourself reflected?
Think about it.
This post previously appeared in February 2013.
Click on image to view larger version.