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Four ways family stories can change the world

A quick scroll through Facebook or Twitter, two minutes of a newscast, one look at the newspaper’s front page – that’s all it takes to show we live in a fractured society.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay that way, let alone get worse. We’ve recently witnessed people coming together to help those who were devastated by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Donating time and resources is a great way to push back against negativity, partisanship, and tribalism. We recognize each other as brothers and sisters in need, offering a helping hand and expecting nothing in return. Those in need are reaffirmed as important members of our community – members we won’t leave behind.

Closer to home, another way to resist the tide of separation and negativity is to share family stories. It may seem impossible that something so simple could transform society for the better, but small actions can have a cumulative effect, changing attitudes and reaffirming bonds. In fact, for long-term, permanent change, the transformation must start with individuals, with us. As conversations grow and relationships are built, an organic change in outlook will reclaim positivity and embolden us to unite in making the improvements to our society we all know are needed.

Sharing family stories is a simple way to start that process. Nothing grandiose, nothing difficult – but very effective.

Here are four ways sharing family stories can change the world.

Stories can reconnect generations

This is a big one for me. I even use it as one of my slogans. But, sometimes, I get a little push-back.

“What do you mean, ‘reconnect’?” I’m asked. “With smartphones, Facebook, Snapchat and all our other technology, we’ve never been more connected. Sometimes I wish I was less connected.”

And there is the problem.

Yes, we are able to track the activities of others in ways unheard of 25 years ago. We are all almost never out of reach. Our “friends” lists are miles wide.

But they are not very deep. Time is no longer invested in conversations. Often, we are substituting a quick post or “like” for an in-person visit. As we do so, the bonds between us gradually decay.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when I look at the relationships between generations. People who entered adulthood before the explosion of information technology started in the 1980s have had to educate themselves on these new ways of communicating or be left behind. For many, there simply was no time or opportunity become fluent users of new technology.

What’s more, the media themselves are not conducive to personally-told narrative. We live in an age of soundbites, not only in our newscasts but in our own words. We tweet at 140 characters; we find our Facebook posts cut off with a “See More” within a couple sentences; our fingers and thumbs get tired while texting. YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat – these are all visual media, and a good story is primarily oral, opening the curtain on the “theater of the mind.” The new technologies themselves may be neutral, but we have structured them in ways which limit our interactions to fleeting posts.

Re-engagement with family and friends of older generations is the solution. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to ask about their lives – growing up, favorite pets, first cars, first dates. Asking about their stories demonstrates how much you value them as a person. Telling their stories gives them a chance to reveal something of their personality and character. This interaction feeds the bond across generations. You both reconnect and come away with a greater appreciation for each other and yourself.

Many of the problems society faces are generational. Older folks, in general, see things differently than younger folks. By reconnecting, we are encouraged to find common ground with friends and family across generations.

Stories can build appreciation for the struggles of our elders

“There is nothing new under the sun,” says the Preacher. Yet, how often did I grumble to my parents, “You just don’t understand!”? How often have my own kids grumbled those words to me?

Listening to the stories of someone who grew up in a different time reminds us of how much we have in common – and that includes problems. We have all faced challenges in social settings, career choices, major purchases and bumpy relationships. Indeed, I never cease to be amazed by the calm sense of perspective demonstrated by someone telling the story of a truly difficult trial. The stability shown tells its own story, one of perseverance and emotional growth. That story, as much as the one about the challenge itself, can grow the same sense of calm confidence in the listener which can be invaluable in our own lives.

Often, the struggles of older generations were, in fact, more intense than those we face. Few of us will endure the prospects of joblessness or hunger like those who grew up during the Great Depression. God willing, we won’t face a massive mobilization, draft, and hundreds of thousands of casualties like those who lived through World War II. While the legacy of segregation and racism remains, we pray we won’t have to confront legally separate facilities, voting restrictions or lynch mobs.

We can better face the personal, societal and spiritual challenges in our own lives if we begin with a clear understanding of the obstacles faced by friends and family members in the past. The stories of their victories and their defeats give us a roadmap, and sometimes even a head start, as we take on hardships in our own lives.

Stories can remind us of our own quirks, challenges and learning curves

Have you ever felt you might be, you know, a little different, somewhat odd, maybe even weird?

I know I have – and still do!

Too often, we judge our idiosyncrasies against a non-existent “normal” imposed upon us by our culture. Our unique characteristics may be resisted as obstacles or leveraged as strengths, but they are precisely what makes us each an individual.

It is a great blessing to learn friends and loved ones from an older generation are not perfectly “normal” either. We all face a process of learning who we are and how we will relate to others. Their stories can provide the relief of humor from someone who has either overcome the awkwardness or accepted it as a part of life.

The comparison is also valuable in providing a little humility. Too often, we bluster through life, conveniently ignoring our own imperfections as we point out what we see as flaws in others. When we learn about the quirks in a loved one’s personality, spoken by that loved one through the stories told, the pressure to hide our own flaws is lowered. That humility can pay dividends across our relationships and out into the larger culture, as we recognize ourselves as a little less entitled to attention, and others a little more.

Stories can create empathy for others facing similar situations

Politics has become so all-pervasive that sometimes it can blind us to stories in our own family which would make us rethink the hard lines of ideology.

For example, my stance on issues of immigration and American cultural identity has been forced to confront some realities from my own family history. My dad tells the story of how, when he was young, his classes were taught in two languages since so many of the students knew little English, and as a second language. The “first” language, in the case of my father and his schoolmates, was German. Dad was a third-generation American, but at home, the family still spoke almost exclusively in German. If it wasn’t for those years of bilingual instruction at school, he might not have become fluent in English.

However I may feel about cultural assimilation or immigration policy, Dad’s stories help me appreciate the challenges immigrants face in blending into wider American society. I am reminded that immigrants are here because they want to be Americans, despite the hurdles they face. Learning a new language and adapting old traditions to a new environment take time. America is at its best when it looks at immigration as an opportunity to add new energy, creativity and, yes, patriotism. Structuring the debate with those positive goals as a baseline can help us find common solutions.

Your own family stories and memories may well provide insights into issues you never expected. An armed forces veteran can open your eyes to the unique sacrifice of service, as well as the horrors of war. A grandfather may tell you about the struggles of split-second decision-making as a police officer. A grandmother may provide insights into the daily insults of racism.

In every case, when we hear the stories of real lives among our families, we can enrich our understanding of the circumstances others face. Stories build a bond of emotion; emotion can energize our search for solutions to the problems facing our society.

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