There’s healing power in telling your family story.
Emily Esfahani Smith in “The Two Kinds of Stories We Tell About Ourselves,” writes simply:
We are all storytellers—all engaged…in an act of creation of the composition of our lives. . . . By taking the disparate pieces of our lives and placing them together into a narrative, we create a unified whole that allows us to understand our lives as coherent—and coherence, psychologists say, is a key source of meaning.
Smith notes the work of Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, who talks about the concept of narrative identity. Narrative identity is the internalized story you tell yourself. It contains the good, the bad, the ugly, the heroes and the monsters—all from our point of view. By telling our story it helps us understand ourselves and helps others understand us.
Notably, in McAdams work he encourages people to divide their lives into chapters, key scenes, highs and lows, and central themes. Interestingly, those who contribute best to society are those whose who tell redemptive stories. They don’t dwell in the bad parts of their stories but they see how the low points lead to high points. Those who dwell in the bad scenes live contaminated stories.
What’s the impact of these stories? The telling of meaningful stories, or extracting the lessons from pain, lead to meaningful behaviors. It changes our practice, our way of life, our trajectory.
A Memorable Family Story
My father died when I was 12 years old. He’d moved away from his own family when he was still young. He never went back, and I only recall ever meeting my grandfather just once in my life. And while my dad was surrounded by a pack of siblings—there were eight of them—I never grew up with them.
It was as if a part of my life was missing. A part of my story had been cut out.
So I went back on a search and found a distant cousin who had done some family research. She told me a gem of a story. It seems that my great grandfather (who I was named after but never got to meet) ran a still deep in the Ozark mountains. For the uneducated, my grandfather was a moonshiner—a purveyor of illegal alcohol.
And I suppose it wasn’t the alcohol as much as it was the sale of that alcohol that perturbed the local revenue agents—the modern day tax collector. One agent in particular spent considerable time hunting down my grandfather and managed to sneak up on him—or so he thought. The agent poked his head out from behind a tree and my grandfather—rifle ready—shot the ear lobe of the agent. The agent fled for his life.
Sometime later the agent met my grandfather in a more friendly setting in town. The agent told my grandfather, “William, you ‘bout kilt me!” My grandfather calmly replied, “If I’d wanted to kill you, I would have aimed two inches over!”
A funny story. Part of the family story that I did not know. But why does it matter? It tells you something of my father’s side of the family—strong, rebellious, industrious, with a bit of humor to boot.
I want my children to know that story, and my grandchildren. It’s part of our legacy. Our collective story. What stories do your children need to know?
Tell the family story. Ask for the meaning behind the story, and how we might change as a result!
What are your most meaningful stories?
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
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Published October 30, 2021
Topics: Family Legacy