Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Stories we Tell Ourselves

Most people may not realize it, but the stories they recall about their families can have a stronger impact upon their life than they think. The message we glean from our family history can come to define us, as well as identify our ancestors. That, of course, can become a force for good—or, in other cases, a personally destructive force. And yet, some of that effect can be owing to the spin we choose to put on the facts.

There's no doubt our family's history can have an impact on us—especially that of our most recent past. Some of those family history details were not merely facts set forth on paper, but episodes we lived through. We recall the stories, sure, but we also remember the emotions connected to those events. More importantly, though, is the evolution of those stories to where they become part of the self-definition shaping who we are.

The power of stories—stories of our own family's history—has often been acknowledged for its ability to build up...or to hold back. From the point in 2013 when New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler published his reflection on the strength of families in "The Stories that Bind Us," he pursued that essence of family stories. Bottom line, he realized,
The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

In that relentless pursuit of the power of stories, Bruce Feiler relied on research by a wide spectrum of academics, and also by continuing to reach out, himself, to people across the continent to glean their examples and illustrations about the stories in their lives. In one of the 2010 studies influencing Feiler's writing, researcher Robyn Fivush noted,
Adolescents who report knowing more stories about their familial past show higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning.

More recently, that same researcher commented that "stories about our family tell us who we are in the world and who we should be." Stories about our grandparents, for instance, "provide models of both good and bad times, as well as models of overcoming challenges and sticking together."

Bruce Feiler, convinced still about "the power of personal stories to give us strength in challenging times," has moved on to issue his latest book about what he calls "lifequakes"—those personal disruptions that rocket us into unexpected life transitions. Life is in the Transitions could not have come out at a more timely season; in fact, the wait until the May 12 issue date may be more of a stretch than some now going through those "lifequakes" would like to see.

While I obviously do not know exactly what this champion of the value of personal narratives might say in his latest book, I suspect a world in flux right now would like to hear it—and as soon as possible, too. Right now, someone who is very close to me is struggling with the news of a diagnosis of cancer. Already, I can see in the stories she is telling herself that the battle may not really be with the medical issue in her body, but with the narrative she allows to run through her mind. Those stories are vital. The ones we choose to rehearse the most will shape our future.

Those are not the only stories we have to draw from our reserves of family memories. There are others, of course. Some, though positive and uplifting, we oddly manage to forget; it's others in our family who need to be there to remind us that, yeah, those things happened, too. From the collective family reserve of stories, we can remind each other of those story riches, rub them into each other's memory like psychological salve and let the healing balm do its work.

Many of those stories may not be written down anywhere, but they are still there, stored up in our memories. Those are the family treasures that get applied when the need calls for them, but we can preserve them, hold them in reserve for the times when we best can apply them.

More than writing these stories down for later recall, though, is the importance of developing the skill of knowing when to apply a story—and which one will best achieve its purpose in uplifting the family member who needs to change which story is playing in his or her head. Knowing how to shift gears is one skill; being able to apply that direction-changing motion is yet another art.

No matter what, where, with whom, or why, though, we need to develop a healthy respect for the power of those stories. While yes, we need to preserve our family's oral heritage to pass on to the next generation, we need to understand the power of those stories which are now playing in our heads, and the imperative to change the story channel when the need is there for a more empowering narrative, then reach down in all that store of heritage to bring up just the right jewel.

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