Phil Harding’s DNA

Things are rarely exactly as they seem.  I remember watching just a few years ago the hugely popular archeology show from British TV, called “Time Team.”  I specially recall Phil Harding, the colorful field archeologist with the big hat, when he was getting his DNA tested. With the analysis complete, Phil was told he had been descended from the original hunter-gatherer-fishers who came to Britain thousands of years ago.  “I knew it, I knew it!” I can still hear him exclaim with much glee.  I guess it was a validation for him being different (which he certainly was).  This was all about his ancient origins, yes, but also about his present personal identity.

There is an old understated joke that says, “I am special, like everybody else!”  I suppose most of us would like to think we are different and distinct, and so we are.  It is remarkable how unique we are able to be among the billions of humans on the planet, but at the same time, aren’t we also very similar in lots of ways?  Phil may not yet have known that he was far from alone in his ancestry or his joy might have been tempered somewhat.  I mentioned Alistair Moffat’s book Before Scotland a couple of blogs back, and he reports that an  important DNA study has shown that fully 80 per cent of people presently living in Britain are descended from the ancient hunter-gatherer-fishers who came over from elsewhere in Europe.  Eighty per cent.

This DNA finding came as a surprise to people who had assumed the British population to be quite a rich mixture of many different peoples because of various invasions and periods of immigration.  But when we consider that many of the invaders were nearby Europeans of very similar origins (Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse, Normans), it confirms that most Brits are much more related to each other than was previously known.  Sorry, Phil, you are kind of a unique guy but you’re more alike to your friends and neighbors than different.

Similar DNA studies were done in continental Europe, with remarkably similar results. For those of us living elsewhere in the English-speaking world, we are also “related” to Phil Harding if we are white and of European stock, especially if we have British surnames. My own response to this fact was not nearly as rousing as was Phil’s reaction, but the news did give me pause for thought.  I and many of the people I know are more genetically like each other than may have been assumed, and we are all more like those who have gone long before us than we may have suspected.

Of course, changes and improvements over the generations do occur, as they should, and I can celebrate my individual uniqueness, as I should.  But I think part of getting in touch with who I am, of learning my own identity, involves appreciating that I am a twig on a small family branch, and this branch comes from bigger branches that long ago grew from the trunk of the human family tree.  This helps me to remember that much of what is good about me exists in others also, and the things that are not so good are not totally on my shoulders alone.  On this planet, I am part of a special and talented, and problematic, life-form.


Into the Deep South

I am going to take a short break from the series I began only a few days ago, because I was struck this past week by the death of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s great books. Lee’s story about race remains one of the most banned or opposed books in American libraries.  I don’t know when I first read it, but I do recall that though the novel held my attention, I somehow did not adequately grasp its message.  As a white Canadian from a white town, I had little personal comprehension of the hateful prejudice that Lee’s book was addressing.  When I made a journey to the southern states for the first time, many realities of the Black/White divide in the “Deep South” began to seem real.

The year was 1970, a week before Christmas, when I agreed to accompany a free-lance journalist on a bus trip through several southern states, on the way to the home of an African-American artist. When we got past Knoxville, Tennessee, and into the Carolinas, I became conscious of having entered what I distinctly felt was a “Twilight Zone,” from the name of a popular television series of that time in which normal people suddenly had strange, disorienting experiences.  Through the window of the Greyhound bus, I started to notice that some stores had little red signs above the entrances with the letters “KKK” in white.  Were white people supposed to shop only there, I asked myself, and were “colored people” supposed to keep out? Other glimpses of racial segregation passed by the window, culminating in one horror of a message on a large billboard.  I could scacely believe what I was seeing.  Framed inside the advertisement’s larger-than-life borders was the picture of a mounted and hooded “klansman” of the infamous white supremacist organization, and around the hood and the uprearing horse was boldly written the words, “This is KKK country — Love it or leave it! “

Eventually, the journalist and I reached our destination, past the outskirts of a middle-class white town, in a quiet rural field on which a dozen older houses stood.  They were dwellings of wood lacking any fresh coat of paint, yet the houses seemed to be bravely holding their chins up, for though the sparse neighborhood was obviously poor, there was an unadvertized dignity here.  We received a friendly welcome and were ushered into the home of “Sadie,” a black woman in her sixties with a round happy face almost like that of a child.  She soon took out a sheaf of large papers on which she had drawn pictures with crayons in bright shades of all colors, flowers and leaves, animals and trees, all dancing and moving as it seemed.

The journalist began his questions and note-taking, for Sadie was to be the subject of his next article, and while this was proceeding,  I noticed that at the far side of the home, in a darker room at the back, we were being watched by a very elderly thin woman. I walked over to her to say hello, and she invited me to sit down with her.  This was Sadie’s mother, about ninety years old.  She appeared eager to tell me about the pictures and their significance.

At an early age, she said, Sadie started to draw her dreams, not the metaphorical kind but her actual overnight dreams, which were often pleasant.  The mother encouraged Sadie in this since it was a positive experience for her daughter and others in the family.  But Sadie’s father opposed it, saying that this was not a practical activity that would help his daughter through life.

One day, when the “waste of time” really bothered him, the father grabbed the whole stack of accumulating artwork, threw it all into a metal garbage drum outside and started a fire.  As he was walking away, a torrent of rain suddenly began to fall.  Rushing back to the house, he noticed that the rain had quickly extinguished the fire, so he scooped out all the pictures and brought them inside.  “The Lord wanted to save these,” he said, and he never again spoke against Sadie’s habit of drawing her dreams.  Through a local friend, Sadie’s pictures eventually came to the attention of a New York art gallery owner who held a showing of them and published news about it in the New York papers.  And that is how it was that my journalist friend and I arrived in the Deep South.

This had been my first more intimate acquaintance with a non-white family, and I began to think about how they felt, how they believed and faced life.  It had also been my first personal exposure to the racially-charged culture in which they had to make their way.  I started to discern more deeply what Harper Lee had known and had so vividly portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird.


Before Scotland and Lord of the Rings

When I was a member of the curriculum committee at the high school where I taught history, it was suggested to me that ancient history should be dropped from the program or reserved as an elective for the final year, and the reason given was that the younger grades could not relate to the “very old stuff.”  I shared with the committee my observation that the kids were very keen on the very old stuff, more so than the history of much later eras.  There was a mystery to the subject that they were drawn to and showed an active interest in finding out about.  At some level, it seemed to matter to most of them – and to certain students, even personally so.

Maybe it had something to do with them being teenagers, searching out their own identity in unfamiliar places, though as I found later on, this human drive to explore origins is not limited to teens in school.  A brief survey of popular books, movies, and TV programs of the past fifteen years will show many titles that have to do with solving ancient mysteries.  Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is only one of those titles, but I mention it here because it has some bearing on a book I have read more than once over the past decade, called Before Scotland by Alistair Moffat, being the story of the land long before it was ever called Scotland.

What drew me to Moffat’s book, when I first flipped through its pages, was a fairly detailed map of “Doggerland,” the large swampy and hilly territory between the British Isles and Denmark which gradually sank beneath the waves of the North Sea.  Remarkably, Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth looks much like the map of primeval north-western Europe with its extended coasts and Doggerland in the centre.  I could almost see Frodo and Sam slogging their way through the Dogger marshes as they travel toward Mordor, though probably Frodo’s “Dead Marshes” beyond the “Entwash” (or “The Wash” as it is known in modern U.K. geography) are a bit further south, taking in also the wet lowlands of old Holland and Belgium.   On the one hand, Before Scotland is picking up a readership that goes well beyond history scholars, while on the other many people have repeatedly viewed the Lord of the Rings films and are continuing to reread Tolkien’s story in its book form, going beyond the mere entertainment of it.   I wonder what that says about both books.

Mysterious ancient origins seem to attract all sorts of people.  The topic is certainly connected to a sense of “home” within us, a specific thirst in our psychological make-up to know our origins better.  Not everyone thinks of that in “historical” terms, for it is often more like a wistful or romantic feeling, and it can even be said to be a spiritual longing to know where we came from.

One of my former clients had a strong urge to see the inside of the old above-store apartment where she had lived as a child, though she passed by it almost daily, having never moved from the town.  Her significant physical and mental health issues had prevented the desired visit from happening for many years.  Finally, after a friend arranged it, she was helped up the long, dirty flight of stairs to the very dingy, almost windowless apartment.  She was in awe as she stood there, giving her friend enthralled instructions to draw the various furniture pieces in her memory as she pointed to their former location in the rooms.

For all the grunge, the dark apartment gave her a deeply meaningful experience of home, reminding her of who she once was and something of the influences in her life.  It strengthened her identity, her sense of self, after losing much of it through many painful and confusing years.  Without a doubt, the old stuff was important – and personally so.

(To be continued)

A few questions about the blog

A couple of questions will be answered in today’s blog, namely (1) “Does the logo have a special or hidden meaning?” (Yes, but hidden in plain view), and (2) “Since Washington was a Freemason and Jefferson an avowed atheist, what was the view of John Adams on religion?” (Earnest but free).

The logo is a set of bookends, but the books are at the ends rather than the usual middle, and in the middle is a clock.  This picture is of a spot in my living room and it was meant to suggest the general theme of the blog, which is “ideas in time.”  The volumes point to the blog’s reports on good books I have read, and I talk about these as showing people’s insights and troubles, which may be of interest no matter where we are on our own journey through time.

As for the other question, David McCullough, the author of the popular biography, sums up the man when he says that “Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that.”  The ancestors of John Adams were the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, seeking freedom to live life as they believed it should be lived.  He, still residing in one of the small communities that his forefathers had settled, always credited the religion of his ancestors for their independence and general success.  Yet for all that, he was never one to spend much time talking or arguing about the faith.  Rather, his aim was to live it out by pursuing freedom and equality for his countrymen.  He said he believed that “human equality is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another…” (p.619).

That belief in the spiritual basis of equality made him an opponent of all slavery.  While some of the American founding fathers were also slave masters, Adams never had a slave and tried to persuade his friend Jefferson to free his own many black servants and “become a Hercules against slavery,” though the appeal fell on deaf ears.  Adams thought that slavery would ruin the achievement of the newly independent United States, predicting that in the future there would be “horrible massacres” that would split apart the union.  And of course, he was right. He also reached out to American Jews and proposed an amendment to the constitution of his home state of Massachusetts to guarantee religious freedom for Jews and all others – a novel thing at the time.

For all his learning and involvement in high politics, Adams aimed for a sense of simplicity and appreciation of life’s mystery. “Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe,” he wrote, “…but never assume to comprehend [it all] (p.630).   In retirement, Adams enjoyed some inner peace by sitting at the window of his home library reading his favorite poems, Cicero’s essays, American novels, and the Bible (the Psalms especially).  These times of quiet reflection eased the feelings of despondency that he felt from being put out to pasture after a very active life.  Thereby he arrived at a new motto for himself: “Rejoice evermore and be content.”

His religion had gradually boiled down to this and a few simple concepts.  In advanced age, he wrote to his granddaughter to answer her questions, recommending that she “…do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.  This is enough” (p.650).

Stormy day thinking

Well, the dentist can’t see me today, so I pop some more pain pills and wait it out. Moreover, the weather for the next two days is set to be very stormy.  I also have to wait for my daughter to come home before I can continue helping her with the remodeling of the house, so I may as well get back to blogging.

Somehow I got to thinking about the older generation, the one that’s passed.  My father-in-law had a life-long drinking problem, imbibing daily though staying “half-sober” much of the time.  It wasn’t good and it led to other serious problems, but as I got to know him I found a man who was a pleasure to talk with when he was more sober than usual.  At the time, it seemed surprising that he had some wisdom to impart to me, but he did and I listened.  He had lived with an alcoholic father who had barely survived years of ruinous warfare in the trenches of Belgium during World War One.  My own father had symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress for many years after cruel experiences fighting the Japanese and surviving a shot to the head, but fortunately for our family, he did not take to the bottle.  There were things to learn about him also, and from him.  I respected both these men, and learned to accept both sides of each one.

One of the great things I absorbed from my years in the field of mental health is that people grow into their healthy selves to the extent that they’re able to relate to the significant people in their lives.  And by “relating” was meant a balanced acceptance of others, taking the good with the bad, and thereby learning to accept ourselves as well, with our own lousy side as well as our better nature.  I think I became more genuine and accepting of my clients when I learned their personal histories, which usually involved much abuse in the early part of their lives.  And I got to appreciate them when I learned how they were keeping on with life anyway.  They all had strengths, some of them significantly so.

This is partly why I enjoy reading history, the stories of people and their lives, how they responded to the challenges in their world and time.  I do acknowledge that I live in a changing society and have never thought that I had to imitate people of old, but I have grown and learned a lot from those who have gone before.  And I am learning still.  In my blogs I feel as if I am continuing that dialogue with some of them.

I don’t write to convince my readers of much.  It’s mostly just to put some thoughts out there.  I can’t expect people to agree with everything I report in these short pieces –I don’t even do that myself.  I do hope they are interesting enough for folks to read in their busy days, and it does me some good to put words together.  Thinking is good, discussion is better, knowing our roots is useful, growing to accept the contributions and tribulations of those who went before us is even more useful.




The feminism of Abigail

I have a bad toothache.  I’ve already been to the dentist but the x-rays don’t clearly indicate the problem.  We are not sure which tooth has to be treated.  I have to call her back tomorrow and I don’t want the wrong tooth to come out.  In the previous blog, John Adams said we should “Know ourselves,” but I don’t even know my teeth.  Maybe some distraction will help, so I get back to reading McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize book.

The year is 1806, and a friend of John and Abigail Adams publishes a scholarly volume analyzing the recent American Revolution.  The author’s name is Mercy Otis Warren, a woman who is also a playwright.  Around the same time, another woman and friend of the family, Mary Wollstonecraft, writes the history of the even more recent revolution in France.  When the American Declaration of Independence was published and the British fleet departed from Boston, Abigail wrote to her husband that he and the other American leaders in the First Congress should now make laws favorable to women, and she emphasized the point with many strong words including the following:

If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are  determined to foment a a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.           (p. 104)

We don’t know how committed she was to her words because she also said, “My pen is always freer than my tongue,” but think of the times.  Abigail Adams wrote this in 1776, not 1976 or later, and as we see from those historical studies published by female Americans shortly thereafter, something akin to feminism was making itself heard so long ago already.  And why then?  Abigail seemed to provide the answer herself in that same letter in which she also described the light heart she felt at knowing that self-government for the colonies was just around the corner: “I think the sun shines brighter, the birds sing more melodiously.”  The same dream of independence that motivated the men to fight, led many of the women to hope for a freedom from various indignities and limitations suffered by their gender.  When America won its independence, the cork was popped and latent talents were inspired to expression.

But what Abigail, who had no shortage of talent, did next may surprise some of us. Though she became very interested and astute in politics, proving to be a reliable adviser to her husband in such matters, she lived most of her life on the family farm, milking the cows, buying and planting the seeds, overseeing the hired help, cooking and cleaning, purchasing property, raising her family and sometimes the children of others as well.  She remained deeply attached to John Adams during many long necessary absences and when he became president, Abigail played hostess and socialite among the higher-ups in government, but when he lost the next election, she returned to her greater happiness on her beloved farm with its many chores.

Complaints she had, but her motto, as she often said, was “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Her son said “She had no feelings but of kindness and beneficence; yet her mind was as firm as her temper was gentle.”  Perhaps she had come to know herself and embraced who she was.

John Adams and mental health

Why are some people able to face life with all its storms and woes, and then go on to some degree of happiness and achievement, while others never seem to pick themselves up or be able to avoid a tragic personal slide into failure?  John Adams, in the Pulitzer Prize presidential biography by David McCullough on which the HBO Films miniseries was based, dealt with that question and came up with his own answers, partly from the world he lived in and partly from his own insights.

Death loomed large in American society in the late 18th century.  Several illnesses, including smallpox and yellow fever, killed many thousands.  In the city of Philadelphia, which had a yellow fever epidemic every summer, in just one such summer lost over 5,000 residents to that plague.  And certainly there were other tragedies in people’s families and personal lives. John Adams escaped from Philadelphia to his pleasant farm outside Boston where he and his wife Abigail were able to nurse their very considerable anxiety over their “tumult of grief,” as she called her deep struggle.

Both John and Abigail wrote numerous letters and kept “diaries,” personal journals in which they searched for understanding and ways to overcome. Journaling has more recently become a widely-accepted means of helping people through their challenges. John counseled his children and grandchildren to take up the practice.  Without it, he wrote, our travels would “be no better than a flight of birds through the air,” leaving no trace. It was an expression of his belief that “Everything in life should be done with reflection,” and of the view that “We must learn to know ourselves, to esteem ourselves, to respect ourselves.”  He also advocated going on frequent long walks along woods and open fields for much the same reason, and to strive for “independence,” personally, financially, and nationally.

The down-side of all this was that John, and many of the people of his times, could not accept within their own families those who failed in life, nor understand the fact that good habits and right thoughts are not sufficient to conquer the kinds of personal challenges that some people face.  One of the close friends of John Adams was a great help here, and indeed famous for his theories on mental illness and addiction.  This was Benjamin Rush, a signer of the American Constitution and a notable doctor who wrote Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, a book that became required reading in medical schools, earning Rush the title of “father of American psychiatry.”

Rush linked the mind with the body to show that there are common causes to physical and mental illnesses.  He opposed the general use of restraints and coercion in dealing with insanity and advocated for separate mental health wards and humane treatment. Rush also began to change the view that alcoholism was nothing more than sin and character failure, noting that the chemical properties of alcohol itself are “causal agents” in alcoholism.  He suggested that addicts be shown harm-reducing therapies such as “weaning them off” by access to “less potent substances.”  How modern many of his views now appear to be.




Politics then and now

We are not so hugely different from people in other centuries.  So when my wife recently bought me a 700-page biography called JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough, I found that although John Adams lived mostly in the latter half of the 18th century (1735-1826), some aspects of his life and times sounded surprisingly modern, contemporary even, so that the book shed light on people and issues of our own times.

The political world in which John Adams was immersed, had all the craziness, mindless verbal attacks, biased journalism, betrayals, and outlandish claims that we have witnessed (for example) in the recent U.S. presidential campaigns and debates.  As vice-president under George Washington and later as president of the United States himself, Adams and his policies were often lambasted as being the greatest evil the young country ever had to stomach.  Of course, these accusations were politically-motivated, usually based on no researched facts, and they were designed simply to bring another party to power which would then become “the savior of the nation.”  Sound oddly familiar?

But there was also something quite different from our own times.  The many letters and journals people wrote in those days showed a certain depth of reasoning and a purposeful self-questioning and personal reflection — and that does seem rare among political leaders or would-be leaders of our day.  In the handwritten compositions of Adams and his contemporaries there was often an honest tone, a humble thoughtfulness, and an intelligent struggling.  One gets the distinct impression that these people had substance, regardless of whether one agrees with their political philosophy or not.

Besides, candidates for high office were not supposed to campaign for themselves. No sir — no self-promoting speeches, no attempts to manipulate the masses with clever message-lines, and no careful hairstyles or clothing fashions by which to project an image.  Only one’s own friends and associates could campaign and try to influence the election.  But a candidate could publish, providing that he did not turn people off by sounding too eager for the office.  Just imagine if those unwritten rules were the accepted standard for politicians today!

Next time:  John Adams and mental health.