“We are in unprecedented times.” This is a statement being made by our government leaders all over the world. But is this true?
No. The truth is, we are in unprecedented times for our recent memory, but there are numerous occasions in history where people have faced a complete upheaval of society and the definition of normal since before we started recording our observations.
As a family historian I have spent untold hours trying to piece together the experiences of our ancestors. It is not hard to gather together statistics from major events that led to mass emigration, population decreases, and major social change. But what has always been so elusive to me is the individual and community experience during these watershed moments. Now is the time to start writing down what we are experiencing. Newspaper articles will record the basic facts, but our personal experience is our responsibility to preserve.
I know when my ancestors left Ireland, and I know the basic facts of why they did: they were fleeing famine, disease and unemployment. They were jumping into the unknown of a dangerous voyage and likely permanent alienation from the home they had always known because they could no longer withstand the known realities. But how were they feeling? What were they talking about in their homes in the days leading up to taking such major actions in the face of overwhelming pressures? These are the intangibles, the individual moments that were not recorded. These are the moments that have been lost, the puzzle pieces that would help me create the full picture of their individual experience in moments of global impact.
Today, we are all in the midst of a moment of global impact. Our history is happening now. Every day, no matter where we are, we are seeing our normal change and evolve in ways we would never have thought possible.
As is the case for so many, my family today is spread across multiple continents: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and England. Thanks to the prevalence of DNA testing I also know that I have cousins in Canada, France, Scotland. The experience of each member of my family is vastly different depending on where they live. Here in Australia, being so isolated from the world, we are currently facing less severe impacts than my cousins in France when you look at the numbers, however our normal has still been abolished. We are being urged to stay in our homes, only go out for the essentials, and then in groups of no more than two. We are seeing limits on daily necessities at the shops. Bars, Restaurants, Cafes, sporting and entertainment events are all shuttered. Retail is now going the same way as are many other “non-essential” industries. Unemployment rates are soaring as businesses go into hibernation.
But this is the just a quick glimpse of our experience here in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. My cousins in New Zealand have been in full-country lock down for a while now, and my family in the USA, depending on the state they live in, are having different experiences as well.
We are blessed with the ability to communicate in real time regardless of the distance–an advantage my famine-fleeing ancestors did not have. How would they have felt about their trip to the New World if they had FaceTime to stay connected to the family staying behind on the Old Sod? This facility helps to ground me, and I depend on this connection to keep the general unease about the global condition at bay. I don’t know what will happen on the flip side of this crisis, but I anticipate the shape of our new normal will be unimaginable compared to what I think I know today.
So I call on all family historians out there – start writing it down, don’t wait until this is in our rearview mirror to record what is happening. Our history is happening now, and it is monumental.