Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Imperative of Sharing Family Stories

A family story—even a family legend—is a wisp of a trail pointing back to the stuff we are made of. That, of course, signals just who we are. Our genes carry powerful messages from generation to generation, and we, recipients of that DNA, express the messages sent us by our ancestors in so many ways.

It's not just a matter of nature. We have nurture to thank for much of our heritage, as well. But the two, intertwined—nature and nurture—make a package deal out of the inheritance we've received from our elders.

Even though we might—as have so many others in our situation—bemoan the fact that we never stopped to think about asking grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles about their ancestors, we can be fairly sure that what we think, how we feel, how we express ourselves or tackle our day-to-day problems is our forebears writ large in our everyday existence.

Yet, much like the adoptee searching for his roots, when we don't have literal stories to couple with those natural impulses, we feel that detached sense of being unhinged from our past. It is when we have the stories to grab onto, to handle, that we can better see ourselves as part of a continuum of generations, rather than that detached individual.

Research has, of course, found a way to document such psychological underpinnings. I knew that stuff already, of course—ever since Bruce Feiler's column broached the subject in The New York Times in 2013—but thanks to a recent post in blogger John D. Reid's Anglo-Celtic Connections, I now have a new article to share concerning the same point, spun off of another article which came complete with links to all those research papers I had already read.

The take-home from all this is simple: when we share our family's stories—better yet, pass them down through the ages—we help build resilience and a sense of connectedness in our younger generations. But what I love about the article John Reid found is that it puts a new spin on the task of "interviewing" our elders: instead of serving as chatty talk-show host fronting a commercially-laced interview process, Tara Calishain heads to current tech resources such as YouTube and Spotify with an eye to finding conversation starters as sure-fire prompts for reminiscing. An excellent idea, resource, and way to switch the routine up from "tell us about when you weren't so old" to using events, media and music from before their time to say to our relatives, "You were too young for this, but tell me what it was like for you."

There is something so valuable, so irreplaceable about sharing our family's stories. Whether we tell those tales while sitting around the dinner table, or after opening gifts during the holidays, or on a long drive to a family vacation destination—not to mention, in a blog post which will remain findable online for years afterwards—it doesn't matter: we are giving a gift which can resonate in the lives of descendants (as well as distant cousins) we've yet to meet.

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