All Your Relations

“You never realize how many relatives you have until you start talking to the old ones,” quipped my son last night.

My two kids and I had just arrived home from nearly two weeks hanging out with relatives out East. You may remember I wrote you last week from Baltimore, where we stayed with my first cousin once removed and his family. From there we paid a visit to my uncle in Richmond, VA, who treated us to a day at Colonial Williamsburg.

 

Then it was on to Charleston, WV, to meet Harriett, a cousin of my grandmother Josephine, who informed me that I actually have cousins in Williamsburg. (I’d had no idea).

 Harriett is 92 and sharp as a tack, still driving safely and climbing the stairs daily to her 2nd floor apartment. (That’s her at right below. She carries a cane “just in case,” but I never say her actually use it.) We had a great time eating Japanese hibachi with her daughter Julia and family. It took us a while to calculate that Julia’s kids are my kids’ third cousins once removed!

 

During one of our chats, Harriett suggested that we stop by Pittsburgh to visit my grandmother’s favorite cousin, Elizabeth Ann. So we did. E.A. is 98 and just as bright and spry as Harriett. We had a delightful visit with her and her daughter, Julie, too. (Bet you can guess which one is E.A.!) 

So why am I telling you all this?

Well, it’s all about the value of relationships.

By the time someone is third cousins with you, how meaningful is that relationship, really? After all, on average your shared variable genetic material from common ancestors is less than 1%. In other words, some of these people are not too much more “related” to me than any random person off the street.
 
Yet, just that drop of common ancestry was enough to forge a bond between us, and instantly open our hearts and homes to each other– even though some of us were perfect strangers just a few days ago. I am now infinitely richer for having met and shared my life with these people, even for a short time.
 
Strange, isn’t it? But maybe it’s not so strange. As it turns out, we humans are vastly more closely related to each other than individuals of most species are.
 
Scientists have calculated that any two chimps staring at each other across a river in Cameroon are more genetically diverse than any two humans from different continents. In fact, when it comes down to total genetic content (as opposed to just the genetic material that differs from one human to the next), you yourself are upwards of 99% identical to me and to every other human on the planet.
 
Think about it. How would your life be different if everyone treated you like the long-lost relative you really are?
 
And what kind of difference could you make in someone else’s life? Not that you have to let strangers into your home. But next time you meet one, might you treat them a little differently? Perhaps greet them with a smile knowing they are a cousin of yours?
 
A smile instead of a blank stare can make a huge difference in someone’s day. Added up over time, a smile a day could save a life.
 
And what about the other living things we share this planet with? You’ve probably heard that humans are 98% identical to our closest relations, chimpanzees. This is true. And to put it into even sharper perspective, about 60% of your genes are identical to those of a banana.
 
Knowing that that banana is a cousin probably won’t stop most people from dropping it into their smoothie. (At least it shouldn’t.) 🙂 But maybe, just maybe, it might change their perspective.
 
To one of gratitude. Respect. And even love.
 
How might that change the world?

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