|Addison Clark Dyer & Family|
West Virginia, 1887
It wasn't until after I saw all the selections that I realized that all five plays deal, in one way or another, with the American family--from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to contemporary Oklahoma. So that's what I focused on with my students as we discussed those plays in our early days back at school. What do these plays say about the family? In what ways do they agree/disagree with one another? Supplement or complement one another?
Their first essay of the year was about the family. They could write pretty much what they wanted--something about a specific family member or a family event or a rumination of some sort. Whatever. (There were other guidelines too--but this is enough!)
One of the things I often did in those opening days was to note that most of us can name our biological parents. (Not all, though ... right? Adoptions and other reasons.) Most of us, too, I suspect, can name all four grandparents. (I knew only three of my own; my paternal grandfather died before I was born.)
But what about our eight great-grandparents? I know only two. The one pictured above--bearded--is my paternal great-grandfather. To his far left (at the right in photo) is my grandfather, Charles Morgan Dyer. I never knew him. I knew none of the others in the photograph, either.
Or what about our sixteen great-great grandparents? Or thirty-two g3 grandparents? (I just made up that symbol system: g3 = 3 greats.) Or our sixty-four g4s? Our 128 g5s? Our 256 g6s? Our 512 g7s? Our 1024 g8s? Our 2048 g9s? Our 4096 g10s? Our 8192 g11s? Our 16,384 g12s? Our 32,768 g13s? Our 65,536 g14s? Our 131,072 g15s? Our 262,144 g16s? Our 524,288 g17s? Our 1,048,576 g17s? Our 2,097,152 g18s? Our 4,194,304 g19s? Our 8,388,608 g20s?
Just think about this--think about those 8 million+ g20s. Every single one of them had to survive until the conception of the g19. Then--the guy could go party with his peeps--or die somewhere. But the woman had to survive until childbirth--and then either rear the g19 herself--or get help. Until that child's conception, all 8 million+ had to endure and survive the plagues and other illnesses, the accidents, the wars, the injuries. the neglect, the cruelty, the vicissitudes of life. (And before them? The 16 million+ had to do the same! And before them?) If just one of my 8 million+ g20s had not survived in time for the g19, I would not be typing this post.
So ... it's not just improbable that each of us is here. It's cuddled up right next to impossible.
It should be obvious, too, that we don't need to go back too many generations before we realize the impossibility that each of us has a discrete set of ancestors. My own g20 ancestors--alone--would surpass in number the entire population of the earth. (One estimate is that in 8000 B.C., the earth's population was 5 million.)
So ... we are not related just in a generic way because we are all human beings; we are related in an actual way. Some of you--maybe many of you--share many ancestors with me back in the days when 8 million+ Dyers were roaming the woods. And think of all that genetic material! What a mess each one of us is! (And what about this disturbing thought--what if our attraction to someone else--as a friend or lover--is actually a recognition on some deep level of a family connection!)
Well ... one theme I've been writing about here now and then is humility. One troubling sign I see in today's culture is a disturbing arrogance--especially among people who, in 2013, find themselves enjoying an economic comfort and security that many people in the world (their cousins, as we've seen) can scarcely imagine. So many of us feel that we've earned all that we have; other people, somehow, are just more lazy. They, you know, deserve their poverty--maybe even want it because that way they can, you know, just live off the rest of us.
I'm sure you can find people who fit that stereotype--and you can find them scattered across society, from Wall Street to Tobacco Road. But there aren't nearly so many, I suspect, as our demagogues declare. Behind every outrageous freeloader are hundreds of thousands of others who are trying their best.
So, today, a plea. Be humble. Use your imagination. (What would my life be like if I had grown up in that person's situation? What would his or her life have been like had we had been switched at birth?)
And remember--we're all related. Not metaphorically. Actually. All of life is little more than a family reunion.