Why People Trace Their Roots

 Why People Trace Their Roots


Traditions are our roots and a profile of who we are as individuals and families. They bind us and reveal our true identity, give us stability and a sense of belonging. With them we’re knitted together as fabrics, like hands on the globe.

In the words of Saint Teresa Avila, all things must come from the soul, its roots, where it is planted. That is, the roots –heritage, cultural affiliations, of individuals have strong influence on their morals, social life, and religious belief.

People trace their biological history for various reasons.  Many a time, they trace history to identify with their genealogy. Maybe in a bit to cover shame and insults from peers.

Albeit, some of these reasons are not particularly psychological. Programmes about famous people’s ancestors have undoubtedly sparked off much interest, curiosity and sense of adventure.  Some special events like birthday anniversaries, a tiff with a close friend who might have described you as ‘’a being without pedigree” may prompt the search.

Other drivers for delving into the journey of uncovering one’s root may include: seeing something in the media that reminds oneself of his/her troubles or maybe meeting others who have searched in real life situation (Feast & Philpot, 2003). Koler et al, 2002 posit that the simplest motivator is simply curiosity.

People may have ‘intense curiosity’ about their birth parents. However, based on one’s personality, the searcher might have a ‘long-standing curiosity about his/her origin’. For some, searching for biological parents or ancestors could remain ‘just curiosity’ without the need for actions.

In line this axiom, Ludvigsen and parnham, 2004 intimated that the decision to search for a birth relative is a slowly accumulating process rather than a one-off trigger.

I would suffice it to say that this also applies to those searching for information about their parentage. According to Andersen’s search group 1989, searchers are categorized into two: those who view search as an adventure, and those who see it as therapy. This can be kept in mind when considering the reasons people seek to uncloak their roots.

For the purpose of clarity, I would loosely group them under the rubric of ‘connection and meaning’ and ‘loss’.


Affleck and steed, 2001 posit that some people want or feel that they need a sense of a wider connection to see how they fit into a larger world, both on current and historical context. For one specifically interested in history, putting oneself or family in a historical context can also prompt the research.

For instance, on finding out that one’s ancestor took part in certain renown events such as resolving conflict during intra-communal or inter-communal crises could ignite the search for one’s true origin.

But more often, this discovery may also runs a risk of being upsetting as one’s true lineage has been covered for aeon. In furtherance, people may also feel the need for a wider social connection, particularly in modern western societies where small nuclear families and greater geographical mobility may lead to a sense of isolation.

Silverman et al. (1994) points out that there is a tendency for ‘this society to want people to stand on their own…[as opposed to]…part of an extended network of care and connection’.

Of course in non-western cultures, we are aware that knowledge is passed down through oral histories.  At such, more is often known about previous familial generations through stories told in moon light at play grounds or village squares, thus maintaining the wider kinship. I particularly love this aspect when I was still a kid. Its moral lores are simply superb!

According to Frankl, 1968, striving to find  meaning out of  one’s life is a primary motivational force. That is , trying to establish a sense of interpersonal connection may help people  cope with others major existential theme, thus helping them discover their origin. I am aware that we are all isolates, but  despite the dialectical tension between ‘separation and fusion’ we feel the same way when denied the true source of heritage, especially when we’re called bastards.

Could this same feeling operates as an additional driver for why people embark on the journey to uncover their roots?

This is a question left for clear minds. Having children can also actuate a search, possibly as giving  birth can pave  ways  for circumstances that could  poised for a  search  for one’s identity or as a means of uncertainty reduction whereby the new and unfamiliar  are  placed in context.

For instance, an adoptee’s  reaction  towards having the first child, who looks  like the father, and wondering about whom herself might resemble is another sensitive factor that triggers the search for one’s genealogy. Perhaps not having children can also be a motivator!

People are geared  to search for their roots when faced with  the misfortunes or ordeals of  not seeing their own hopes in life materialising. So searching for one’s genealogy may be prompted by‘’ infertility, possibly as a replacement, as a way of reaching cognitive congruence or as a way to reach some psychological resolution ‘’(Farrer, 2003).

A further motivator for tracing one’s ancestry can be the ” inhumane treatment” from surrogate parents. Someone who is  in the abyss of torture , on knowing his/her place of  birth or the state of surrogacy surrounding parents,  may be  prompted  to  ask questions about  his/her consanguinity.


Loss of various kinds can also exhort us  to research our roots: the loss of certainty, of one’s own potential, of health and the belief in one’s own  immortality, or of any  significant other.

I should explain what I meant by  loss of certainty and  others right?Okay, calm down lets cruise together!

By loss of certainty, I mean the disinterments  of family ‘secrets’ needing further investigation, the wish to have a family myth or story confirmed . This can be a trigger. Occasionally, people have been told  that they are  the offspring of landed gentle folks  and  maids; some find this more acceptable than been told that  both parents are being servants. In as much as these  stories are sometimes told to hide illegitimacy,  some may possess elements of wittiness.

Other tectonic watersheds  are considered by Powell and Afifi (2005), who consider issues from the ‘uncertainty management and ambiguous loss’  literature looking at the different  ways in which people especially adoptees experience uncertainty and loss.

They suggest that ‘uncertainty is a complex phenomenon’ which is why  not all of us are motivated to find out what we can do about uncovering  our  line of descent , even with time and course allowing.

Been disgruntled , displeased with one’s own life circumstances may impel people to search for a better alternative. Perhaps as  there is vicarious pleasure in finding out that one’s ancestors were of the gentries or had many acres of land!

Occasionally, dreams of wealth can also prompt a search, as people hear stories of someone dying intestate and relatives having to be traced by solicitors. Some people may have been told that past family members have been cheated out of their inheritance.

Often, there is the hope that one is related to people of high status or wealth, or perhaps someone famous or notorious. This may be a question of reflecting in another’s glory to make up for one’s own perceived failings .

Another possible function of the search for one’s roots  is the quest   ‘to achieve a genuine integration of biological roots and the developmental experience…through active demystification of the original family’ (Rosenberg and Horner).

Indeed, they asserted  that  “the birth-parent romance fantasy can be laid to rest only if their  integrity is achieved’.

Even just the acknowledgement of the desire to search can be empowering ‘in and of itself’, regardless of outcome. Another ‘loss prompt’ could be the loss of health and the belief in one’s own immortality.

To some extend, being in the latter stages of life or having been diagnosed of a serious medical condition can act as triggers; perhaps prompting an interest in something that will outlast the organic self, possibly to leave a legacy of some sort onto your children.

From existential point of view, ‘acceptance of death results in the realization that generations of human beings have come before and that future generations will continue to arise’ (Krueger & Hanna, 1997).

As one gets older, there may be existential issues outfacing “the self”, such may include: parents dying, poor health, declining faculties, and isolation. With all these questioning the meaning of life. Krueger & Hanna, 1997,  infer  that  starting genealogical research may be one attempted solution or a coping mechanism. In this way, the desire to search is more than adjustment but a move towards ‘mental health ‘ wellness, and emotional congruence.

What about the loss of a significant other? When grieving for the loss of a close relative, as part of the working through process, there may be a felt need to explore influences that shaped their personality. And thus, knowing more about one’s own parents’ upbringing may then become salient.

Along the line, folktales, folklores and other forms of legendary may play vital roles in healing the  feelings of grief. Fitzhardinge (2008) talks of the healing possibility of telling stories and states that ‘resilience studies shows  how some people move on from adversity to complete wellness  by finding a productive way to make sense  of their stories.’

Let me conclude with the  words of Ernest  Agyemang  Yeboah, that ” to know your past is to know your future‘’. People who do not know their root or strife to knowing are like  identity matrices with no determinant  and orientation. Of course the strength of  the stem and the fruits of its  branches lies in the roots .

What will become of the tree when the roots are rotten?

Analyze this prosaic question  by yourself and  tell yourself the truth. Do you know your root?Knowing your tradition, ancestry as a person  helps  you to  improve on your nativity, emotional congruence, and stability.


About the author:

Okpeta, Gideon Iching is a poet, and  Essayist . He’s  Nigerian. He’s currently studying for his Higher National Diploma  at Akanu Ibiam federal polytechnic Unwana, Ebonyi state, Nigeria.

Okpeta is a contributing writer for  Joshuastruth magazine (JT MAG). At his spare time, he writes and plays the keyboard.

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