How to understand your identity.

Researching my family tree recently has opened my eyes a great deal to the social history of the 1700s and 1800s in England which affected the lives of my ancestors. Many of my posts have been themed as Imaginative Ancestry as I tried to imagine the lives of tin miners in Cornwall, agricultural workers in Kent, and iron workers in Cumbria. But I have begun to realise that my increased understanding has done something else; it has altered my focus towards …….. myself! The basic question is “who am I” and much more importantly to me “what is my identity” especially as created or influenced by my ancestors?

Identity is a very personal thing, not something to be hijacked by those who label “identity politics” as something right wing or fascist, not something racist that’s based on ethnicity in a predominantly white country, but something that’s based on a self image, a personal construct arising from one’s upbringing, one’s values and beliefs and one’s sense of “being” in time and place.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria, England

One thing is very clear to me; I am a Cumbrian, an Englishman, not a European. I may live in a country that is bounded within Europe, but that doesn’t make my Nepalese wife a European either. She is a Newar from Ason in Kathmandu, a Buddhist, even though she has a passport with European Union written on it; this does NOT say who she is!

My mother was born in Cumbria, England, her father was from Cornwall and her mother from Kent. She married a soldier from Durham whose parents were from Devon. I was born in Cumbria too, went to school in Cumbria and worked in Cumbria after leaving school until I was 19 years old.

My parents were ex WW2 military, low in education, low income, high in work ethic, high in community spirit and respect for others and the law of the land. This tells you something of the environment in which I grew up and how my values and beliefs were shaped.

I think this is the heart of it, our values and beliefs deeply ingrained are what “makes” our identity. So my beliefs in “big values” like justice, integrity, fairness, learning, tolerance, hard work and loyalty are hopefully backed up by how I have acted throughout my life as a father, a husband, a friend, a psychologist and as an aid worker.

But there’s something else about identity, a feeling of belonging somewhere, and that brings me back to my Cumbrian roots as I stand in the middle of a field in the Borrowdale Valley. I haven’t been to this exact spot for a few years, probably not since I was finishing my quest to stand on top of all 214 peaks in Cumbria (known and listed as Wainwrights).

I looked down the valley to the East and across Derwentwater to Skiddaw behind the lake, to my left were the beginnings of the Newlands Horseshoe with Catbells and Maiden Moor, to my right the Lodore Falls, and behind me the Jaws of Borrowdale carved by ice and eroded over thousands of years. This landscape has also carved my identity, whether it be the shores of the Cumbrian coast and its tiny fishing and mining villages , or the highest mountains in England inhabited by the flocks of Herdwick sheep. Both invoke a spirit of stubborn bloody mindedness, clinging to the land as well as a way of life …… a different way of life from my ancestors, but one definitely shaped by them rather than a political definition or a passport.


Categories: Family History

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7 replies

  1. A sense of belonging….that feeling of a place that gives you a warm glow and contentment. In the Welsh language there is a word, ‘hiraeth’ which, simply translated, means longing. But for a Welsh person, particularly if you are an expatriate living away from Wales, hiraeth is the calling from deep within your soul and from your ancestors pulling you back saying: ‘come home, come home’. The feeling of joy whenever I return to Wales is hard to describe but, after 30 years of being an expat, I’m back for good. I’m where I belong.

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  2. I agree. I discovered I was adopted at age 52, both adoptive parents dead. I then was afloat with no idea what my origins were or who I was. Finding my birth family, connecting loosely with some but very closely to others and visiting the places of my ancestors has given me back my identity. I now know ‘from whence I came’ and who I am. It feels amazing.

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    • I discovered my Grandad had been adopted ca 1882; apparently, he did not know. At that time, adoptions were mostly within families. Nothing was documented, but intensive research directed by hunch, showed his was not. I found myself partial to my adoptive heritage; his nurturers. Yet my feelings were complicated with empathy for his biological side. My “from whence I came” legitimately is the statement of four lines, not two. My deepest hope was that all found peace.

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  3. So very well put. I believe this delving into your ancestry has been a valuable exercise.

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  4. You are fortunate to have that sense of place contributing to your sense of identity. I did not find that until I settled myself in Colorado – no connection to my family heritage. I do enjoy visiting my ancestral homes, though and leave to see a family homestead in Idaho next week.

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