The Noble Line: a psychology of ancestry and the quest for roots

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the notion of what I call “the Noble Line,” i.e. the psychology of ancestry.

It used to be that growing up a person had a sense of family roots – roots not limited to one’s immediate parents or grandparents, but roots extending back for generations. When a man or woman got married they considered the fourteen noble ancestors in the family line and concerned themselves with producing the fifteenth.

One’s noble line of great men and women spurred one to dream dreams and rouse the confidence needed to carry on the family’s noble history.

This whole notion seems lost today; as if the people of an entire generation have been cut adrift from communion with their ancestors and made to construct their own sense of purpose and meaning (not freed to, but made to). That’s fine as it goes, nothing wrong with gaining a sense of purpose and meaning outside of one’s family roots. But I wonder what, in general, a person’s psychology was like in this fabled bygone era. I wonder: were they less neurotic, less anxious, less depressed, less drug dependent for simple day-to-day functioning, less likely in their search for belonging to consult with Ancestry.com?

Nearly everywhere I look, people are trying to connect with some group or some idea that will give them hope, courage, or some sense of peace in this highly chaotic, impersonal world.

Of course, there must be plenty of people today who enjoy the luxury of close relationships with their parents and grandparents, glorious and noble parents and grandparents, who possess something approaching the premodern sense of a noble line. But I simply do not know these people.

On the personal front, I lived the majority of my childhood with no concept of belonging to a noble line. The best I could conjure was a vision of my Scotch-Irish heritage as somehow glorious and worthy of imitation, imagining for myself certain Scotch-Irish traits that maybe I possessed and maybe I could use for a glorious purpose. But, my imagination proved too weak to carry me in any serious way.

Thankfully, as a teenager I was reunited with my biological father and worked construction with him for a couple of summers. I discovered that, although sometimes a cruel slave driver (I hope he’s reading this), my father was a master carpenter, worthy of great respect for the blood and sweat he poured into his craft over many decades. My father lived the motto: “The quality of a man’s work is a reflection of the man himself.” And I mean, HE LIVED IT. Slightly narcissistic, he never built anything but the best. If he discovered minor flaws, regardless of how far he was into a project, he was likely to tear it down and start from scratch. I watched him do it on occasion. I watched him do it to 50 linear feet of wood fencing, which took me hours to construct for one of his projects. He tore it down in roughly 2 minutes.

I’ve since recovered from the trauma.

My father’s example of master craftsmanship gave me a sense of a noble line. I was not about to become a carpenter (based partly on my failure as a fence builder), but I knew that whatever I set my hand to, I would work at it as if my dignity hung in the balance. My craft turned out to be psychotherapy. Lord have mercy.

Before this encounter with the noble line, I was like a lot of the teenagers I meet today. I had dreams of becoming rich and famous, and I had plans on attaining it as quickly as possible. As the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for a few different garage bands, I was absolutely sure that I would make it big – U2 would someday beg to open for my band! Looking back, I realize how much this self-inflicted pressure to be something great had actually strangled my creativity. Somewhat related, during the same period I was running high school track and cross-country and suffered severe anxiety before races. Another sign of a deep-seated need to feel important – winning races would make me important.

Today when I work with teenagers in therapy, I can feel every bit of their self-disapproval as if I were experiencing my own adolescence again. In my practice I’ve noticed many of my clients claim to have Native American heritage. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across from a fatherless, drug addicted, gang-involved teenager who suddenly turns starry-eyed when he or she begins talking about their Indian heritage. “I’m Cherokee,” or “I’m Blackfoot,” the client says with a look of heroic nobility and a sudden burst of pride that only comes from connecting with something more honorable and larger than oneself. But, like clockwork, as consciousness of their actual situation and image of themselves returns, their face regains its look of stubborn fear, of lostness.

As in my own case of Scotch-Irish fantasies, their communion with their fantastic noble line falls apart if an actual living connection with the actual living people of the line is lacking. So, it’s back to the gangs, back to drugs, back to social media, back to counting “likes”, back to whatever will give them a sense of belonging and importance – and as fast as possible!

What’s the solution? What’s the solution for us, a people who have lost the noble line, a people captive to a postmodern continuum of tearing down every edifice of the past that dares to give meaning and purpose to our lives, a people cut adrift from the communion of our ancestors? Barring those cases of people blessed to have an actual noble line (or those deeply involved with a religious affiliation that grants them the spirit of a noble line), what are the rest to do?

As a psychotherapist, this question interests me greatly. But like all things psychological, any particular strategy for overcoming problems will work for some and not others. One really has to take it case by case, but in general I reason it out like this:

Doesn’t every noble line begin with someone, some particular someone?

What prevents the one lacking a noble line from starting one?

The old Chinese proverb comes to mind: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.” You don’t have a noble line? That’s a bummer. Start one now.

Easier said than done. There are plenty of obstacles in the way of anyone wishing to take on this enormous journey. But could it be any other way? Doesn’t nobility require precisely the overcoming of trials? What great human endeavor was ever considered noble without massive amounts of grit and wisdom colliding with equally massive resistance?

That said, if we liken the situation to a great journey, it would seem that a good co-pilot is a must. Dante would not have journeyed far through the nine circles of hell without faithful Virgil guiding the way. A wise friend, pastor, therapist, coach (fill in the blank) is required for safe passage. We can’t go it alone. After all, the doctrine of individualism is a major culprit in the loss of the noble line.

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