I’m Not Slavic, So Why in the World Do I Act Like It?
By G. G. Vandagriff
It has been over fifteen years since my genealogy how-to book, Voices In Your Blood: Discovering Identity Through Family History has been published. It opened with a discussion of genetic memory. To what extent are we affected by the genes passed down to us by our ancestors whom we have never met? As the years have gone by, I have descended into the worst of my depression and then phoenix-like risen from the ashes in complete recovery. During those huge mood changes, there is one thing that has remained constant, and it is the thing that makes me more than ever certain that much of our identity comes from our mitochondria (tiny parts of our cells which are literally passed down to us from the bodies of our ancestors.)
That one constant in my life is that despite the fact that no one in my extended family shares this trait, all my life I’ve been a drama queen. While this comes in handy in my profession, it is a distinct disadvantage in real life. Yet, I seem to have no control over it, no matter what my mood. As I write this I am listening to a tragic bit from La Boheme. I ache over Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Rachmaninoff. They speak a musical language that goes straight to my soul. To me, Anna Karenina is the greatest of all books, because Tolstoy understands the human condition better than any other author I have read. The number of disastrous romances I had as a young adult defies counting. Truly. Even Tolstoy wouldn’t believe my melodramas.
Before I knew the truth about my Slavic heritage, I got both my graduate and undergraduate degrees in Slavic history, politics, and economics. Shortly after I obtained my master’s degree, I discovered two things: 1.) My grandfather was born in Russia into a line of German colonists who had immigrated there 160 years before he was born. 2.) On the other side of my family, my grandmother was descended from Germans who had lived in what is now Poland. They had intermarried with the noble Polish house of Polenska. You can imagine what enlightenment this brought into my life. I was no longer such a mystery to myself.
More evidence: As most of my readers know,I am bi-polar. So were my Slavic greats. Genetically we speak to one another in a language that is the most intelligible there is for us: intense hyperbole. It is higher than most people’s highs and lower than most people’s lows. My only serious work as a novelist is about the fall of a great Slavic Empire, and is full of tragedy, angst, and never-ending love. (The Last Waltz) It feels real. It is full of emotions and problems created in a world I never knew, and yet I feel as though I lived through those times.
I don’t mean for this to sound supernatural. But science tells us that we carry parts of our ancestors in us (mitochondria) over and above our genetic make-up. Is it unreasonable to assume that our likes, dislikes, longings, and fears are an inheritance from those ancestors? When the scriptures tell us that the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers, I believe that this is literal. Many people are almost haunted by their ancestry. Why? Does it make sense to say that we knew them in the pre-existence and that we made promises to them about the work we would do for them on this earth?
Little pieces of that knowledge are within us, in the truest sense. Just as we have the Light of Christ within us, because of our relationship to him through our common Spiritual Parent, might we also have similar spiritual memories of those who forged our paths for us on this earth before we were born?
Even if we come from genealogical lines that are well-researched and for whom all the temple work has been done, it is very important for us to become acquainted with our ancestry. We are here because of their love stories, their ideals, their faith, their mistakes, their decisions. I imagine many of them will greet us at the veil. We are bound to them by spiritual links that go back through all the ages that we read about in history. As scientist Lewis Thomas says in his work, Lives of a Cell: : it is not a matter of being descended from our ancestors, as much as it is a matter of bringing them along with us!
Those of my ancestors who endured the incredible suffering of bi-polar disorder or the “Slavic temperament” (though bi-polarism is not limited to Slavs by any means) are counting on me, one who was allowed to suffer as they suffered, but then was granted relief, to do what they cannot do for themselves to bring them to the healing arms of the Savior.
This work is so very very Messianic. Can you, when you think about it, even begin to imagine how much you owe to those who came before you in hardships you will never experience? In this same way, we are indebted to our Savior for taking our sins and our burdens upon Him. In order to extend this blessing to those who formed us, we must do a very simple thing: find them and then do their temple work. Take them through that veil they are longing to pass through out of prison and into Paradise.
Recently I underwent major surgery for the second time in six months. In both cases, I went through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as my depression revisited me for a short time afterwards. Both times I wondered how I could possibly have lived with that disability for twenty-five years! These little tastes gave me, not only an appreciation for the miracle of my current wellness, but also made me wonder how my ancestors with this “Slavic” disease ever coped. I am so very very honored to be the one that was given the answers while on earth–the atonement, the gospel, and modern medicine. (It also helps tremendously to have a very stoic Scandanavian husband, whose most basic emotional needs are fulfilled by a good football game.)
Go look up those love stories. As Alice Walker puts it, you are descended from a long, long ladder of love that reaches through time.