Our life is a composition of stories, forgotten if not written or shared. Enjoy this article, written by guest author, Rhonda Lauritzen, founder of Evalogue Life–Tell Your Story!
I didn’t set out to write my own family’s story, or anyone else’s for that matter. In 2007 the power of story showed up in my life out of nowhere. It started as a little spark, or a nudge just to pick up a pen somehow just feeling I should go with it. It felt like the whisperings of purpose so I circled a date on my calendar and decided to simply begin and see what was there. When that date arrived, ideas about my parents flowed freely and in the middle of that writing, I got a call my dad had just passed away. The timing, given everything that was on the page was unbelievably uncanny and in the middle of grieving, I felt that my mother and I should write their life story. Every Essential Element was published four years later, and the process changed me. People’s stories are now my life’s devotion and I have learned that they are far more important to families than I imagined.
Why? At a basic level, humans are storytelling animals, wired in powerful ways. We daydream with our minds telling a running narrative. At night, our minds continue right on with the storytelling. Children act out stories in play, rehearsing grown-up life through narrative. Every movie, television show, and most great songs are stories. Even television commercials grab us with mini vignettes. Interactive gaming creates whole worlds of story in which players become live action heroes.
Stories are how we learn, convey our culture and teach the next generation. Every religious text and oral history tradition passes a canon of stories to the next generation.
With that overview, I’d like to share three core beliefs I have about why stories matter:
First: Stories bind families together.
Second: Stories shape the meaning of what happens to us.
Third: Stories are how we will be remembered.
I want to begin with the first claim, and one of the most powerful reasons to tell stories. It is, simply:
1. Stories bind families
In my own family, I could not have known when I began writing Every Essential Element that one day, I would have a child who would only know her grandfather, my dad, by the stories we tell about him. Now she has a book to read someday when my own memory has faded, to illustrate why we named her for this man. The process of writing about my parents’ values helped me solidify my own beliefs, encouraging me to become the kind of person who acts on faith.
In addition to my personal experience, there is a wonderful New York Times article entitled, “The Stories That Bind Us,” author Bruce Feiler tells of a time when his family reached a breaking point. Fear that his family was falling apart led him on a quest for the best research about what makes a strong family. He scoured the literature and came to a surprising conclusion, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”
In one powerful study, researchers found that children who knew more about their families did better in times of stress. “We were blown away,” the researcher said. Read related article about Bruce Feiler and the power of telling stories with your families.
The answers children gave to even simple questions like, “where were your parents born,” told whether they felt like they belonged to something bigger than themselves. It turns out that children with the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.”
Anyway, back to Bruce Feiler. He goes onto clarify that while all stories carry meaning, some are better than others. The most helpful narrative is one called the “oscillating family narrative” which goes something like this: “Darlin’, we’ve had good times and we have had some doozies. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together.” I love that they’re suggesting we whitewash the hard stuff.
In short, if you want a happier, more resilient family then put some effort into intentionally telling the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to get through the difficult ones. This one simple act may increase the odds that your family will flourish.
2. Stories shape the meaning of what happens to us
Since the beginning of time, humans have been telling stories around the fire. The Bible is in a story format for a reason. In short, story is how we teach and how we inspire. Story has the power to change people.
Here is one of my favorite examples of how story shapes meaning. In Helen Keller’s autobiography the part that stuck with me is where she describes how as a girl, the world existed for her as amorphous shapes that she did not understand. It was not until she gained language that she fully awakened. The ability to describe the world and put it into words made everything come alive for her. She came alive. As she discovered the world through language, she discovered her purpose in it.
I have also seen people evolve through the telling of their story. In other words, they sometimes grow right before my eyes. This usually happens when I am interviewing someone for a full book. It happened in the process of writing Remember When, with Norma Kier. She conquered her greatest fear at age 80 while we were still writing the ending.
There are times when I see something in the teller of a story that he or she may not have noticed in themselves. When I write about their life, they see it through a new lens and it often it solidifies their strengths or points out fences that still need mending while there is time.
3. Stories are how we will be remembered.
There was no way I could have known when I began writing my parents’ story that one day I would have a little girl named after my dad, and that she would only know him through the book. Without stories passed on, she would share a name with a headstone but not have a connection to the funny grandpa, the passionate entrepreneur, and the in-love husband that he was.
Maybe there’s a great article or study to back up this third point, but instead I’d like to propose this exercise:
How many of your great-grandparents can you name?
Do details and personality traits come to mind about all 8 of your great-grandparents? Do you know how you take after them? What were their greatest triumphs and hardships? Here is a confession. I didn’t even realize I had 8 great-grandparents until I was an adult and did the math. Why? Because I only knew stories about some of them. Now I know them all because I have sought out their stories.
Am I right that the ones you remember best have the strongest stories attached?
It is curious to me that we spend so much money on gravestones, yet these markers tell little about people’s lives. It’s a sobering thought to me that by the time the last person dies who personally knew me, the ONLY memory will be stories passed down. Two generations, that’s all it will take to wipe out all memory of me.
In my own family, I have become more intentional to preserve the ongoing narrative of our story because I know it will strengthen us now, and in the future. I write each story as a love letter to the future. If you don’t tell your story, who will? It reminds me of song from the musical Hamilton, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden, Utah and work together in it, weaving family and business together. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her latest book Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story.