Mike Bundrant, author, coach, and founder of the iNLP Center, who writes for the Psych Central website, asked me to do a guest piece on how family storytelling intersects with mental health. You can find the article here. Thank you to Mike and Psych Central for publishing the piece and for promoting the value of sharing family stories!
I am a huge advocate of sharing family stories. Memories connect us to the past and to each other. We are better because of them.
Unfortunately, too often we get busy with life in general and forget the importance of taking a break, sitting down, and talking with our loved ones – whether older than us or younger.
We rarely think about the simple fact that opportunities to share these stories are limited. Our children, grandchildren or other relatives may not get the chance to hear our recollections. That’s just reality.
Most importantly, they won’t hear them in our own words. We simply can’t let that happen – and we don’t have to!
Even if you don’t have your stories captured and produced professionally, you can at least grab your smartphone and record a few things in your own words which your grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and generations beyond will want to know.
Here are three stories from your life that you need to record for the generations yet to come.
1. I want to hold your hand
Who we are really starts with where we come from. We may just be a “twinkle in the eye” so to speak, but the moment when our ancestors meet really includes us. We are a part of that formational story. Your descendants will want to hear how you met that important person who is also part of their family tree.
These meeting stories contain the sweep of human emotions. They bring the past into the present. They tell us important things about our progenitors.
Even more importantly, how the stories are told brings insight into the personality of this storyteller who stands in our family history. My grandparent or great-grandparent becomes more than just a person in a photo. He or she becomes a real human being, with a personality and a style, and a voice I can hear and appreciate.
Be sure to give your future descendants the gift of knowing you by knowing how you met the other half of this human equation.
Along with learning about the initiation of an ancestral relationship, future generations will want to hear the results of that pairing. The day a child is born tends to be a little crazy. A lot is going on! As a dad, I know I was pretty stressed out on the day of birth for each of my two kids – and I had the easy job!
We all like to hear these stories because the drama and worry and confusion and relief give us a window into the way the characters think. We may be surprised not only by how the story unfolds but also how the story is retold. Again, we learn something about the personality involved by hearing the story in the person’s own voice. The climax is a birth which brings us a step closer to the generation of the listener.
The stories of your children’s births are valuable content for your must-have recording.
3. A day in the life
If I ask you to tell me a vivid memory from your childhood, what comes to mind? A first day at school? An accident? A sports victory? A great family vacation? The loss of a loved one?
These moments, whether happy or sad, tragic or triumphant, are another window into who you are. You will tell the story from today’s perspective, noticing things about the childhood “you” which add to the depth of the narrative. You can bring understanding to the story, explaining both its value in your childhood eyes and its continuing prominence today.
Again, what future generations will really be hearing is a story which draws a portrait of you. That’s what they will seek. Choose at least one of these moments and tell the story.
That’s a gift the future will treasure. So what are you waiting for? Start recording!
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.
The mission of Legacy Chronicles Life Stories is to reconnect us to each other by securing and sharing our stories.
What we saw in Charlottesville over the weekend, including a terrorist act which killed a young woman, is the opposite. It is an example of what our society looks like when it fractures. Charlottesville demonstrated stories also have the power to disconnect, isolate and embolden our fallen nature, resulting in hatred for and violence toward others who do not hold those stories in common.
A story’s power does not flow from its truth or falsehood, but rather faith in the narrative itself. What we witnessed Friday and Saturday was a narrative using few facts strung together with many lies, structured by an overarching worldview. On the streets of America, we saw what totalitarian stories look like.
A story of hate
The neo-fascist story is broadly told as follows:
History shows that white men are meant to rule the world. They are uniquely and genetically endowed for leadership. They only fail to maintain this position due to outside forces which organize against them – in a “just” world, the greater capabilities of white men would be rewarded with upper-class status. These hostile forces can either delude white men into believing they are not special (Christianity, constitutional democracy, common morality) or they can restrict the privileges white men should enjoy (anti-discrimination laws, political correctness, “intellectualism”). The primary targets (Jews, minorities, women) are seen as usurpers of the white man’s proper place.
According to the story, these outside forces must be confronted, defeated, subjugated. When “enlightened” white men rise up, they will overcome these enemies and reestablish dominance. Since the opponents can be expected to resist, this climax will be violent. White men, endowed as they are with special courage and loyalty, must embrace this violence and adhere to a leader through the struggle who will guide them back to their rightful status at the top.
For neo-fascists, Charlottesville was a test. Will they bravely and openly stand for what they believe? Will they be prepared to use violence? Will the leader step forward to guide them?
The president's role
Before I get too far, let me address the elephant in the room: Donald Trump. I do not believe he is a neo-fascist, Nazi or KKK member. I don’t even think he is a sympathizer. What Donald Trump has proven himself to be, time and time and time again, is an egoist. His morality, if you can call it that, is based on self-worship. If he judges you to be helpful to his personal ambitions, he will bestow praise and warmth and blessings upon you. As soon as you cease to be, he will drop you. Anyone not willing to feed Donald Trump’s egoism is an enemy.
So why was the president so loathe to condemn fascists, terrorists, and at least one murderer? Because they haven’t crossed him. They support him. Indeed, most are watching him carefully, hoping he will be the “alpha male” leader who will guide them to the promised land.
Trump wants their loyalty, their enthusiasm, their praise. He couldn’t care less what they believe.
When Trump released his initial statement about the violence Saturday, saying it came from “many sides” without judging its source or offering any solutions, he was simply trying to maintain ties with people he believes adore him. If the “antifas” who were joining in the street brawls against the Nazis had been wearing the "Make America Great Again" caps, Trump would have said the exact same thing.
Monday’s direct statement condemning the neo-fascists was plainly a response to public criticism. If Trump is in any way sincere in scolding them, it is not because they executed mayhem and murder. It is because they embarrassed him.
What comes next?
If you remember your history, the rise of Nazism in Germany was a long, slow process. At the end of World War I, Germany was a mess economically and politically. Various German nationalists were trying to organize a following, defining their movement primarily by what they were against and who they hated. Adolph Hitler was just one of many, and not very prominent. There were protests, occasional riots, and clashes, along with various intrigues as would-be leaders tried to pull respected public figures over to their side. When it began to appear another of these groups, already entrenched in government positions, would try to take control nationally, Hitler felt compelled to act. In November 1923, he initiated a poorly organized revolution in Munich: the Beer Hall Putsch.
The results of this failed provincial revolt were four dead policemen, 16 dead nationalists and prison time for Hitler. He spent it writing Mein Kampf. It took another decade before Hitler rose to national power.
Even so, Hitler and his Nazi followers saw the event and its aftermath as a victory, convincing them to press on.
What seems clear is that the neo-fascists see Charlottesville as a victory, too. Yes, Trump eventually condemned them, but, from their viewpoint at least, he didn’t mean it. They can continue to rally inside Trump events, recruit others to their cause, and start to plan the next confrontation. They probably will be more cautious next time, and seek to target an opponent which, in their eyes, will be a less sympathetic victim.
The American neo-fascist story is a worldview narrative. Such all-encompassing stories create constant opportunities for confirmation. The proximate cause of the rally itself, Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was simply opportunism. These true believers had time to plan, organize and train. Similar chances can come from court dates, city council debates on immigration or race relations, the birth dates of Confederates, rallies scheduled by inviting targets like peace marches, Black Lives Matter, the Anti-Defamation League, etc.
The key to understanding neo-fascist methods is understanding that, despite their narrative of superiority, they see themselves as victims. They encourage this thread of “injustice” by getting others to react violently to their hatred.
Again, Charlottesville was a test, which the neo-fascists think they passed. The next high-profile action is likely to be bloody and shocking. Specifically, they may try to incite a riot in an African-American majority community or perhaps assassinate someone they think is seen as an enemy by a broader swath of the public. They want their violence to be noticed. They want it to force people to take sides.
This is where today’s fractured society, with politically-divided camps hurling insults and accusations with the sole intent to offend, seems less than adequate to the challenge. Social media cops patrol the web looking to enforce fealty to the cause by any wayward ally. Others crave the validation of “likes” with posts meant to enrage a generalized enemy. This same attitude seeps out into our more public actions such as parades and marches, bumper stickers and t-shirts. Free thought is not encouraged by many on the right or the left. This is the kind of environment where neo-fascism grows.
What can be done?
People of good conscience, who do believe in the liberties of a constitutional democracy, equality before the law and justice through the rule of law, need to reject the rhetoric of totalitarianism. You can’t wear a t-shirt with Castro on it and claim to believe in justice. You can’t chant “Lock her up!” when Hillary Clinton hasn’t been charged or convicted of a crime and claim to believe in the rule of law.
The danger, as we saw this weekend, is that some people will take these reckless statements and decide to act on them. Sometimes, as in the recent shootings of Republican congressmen or the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords a few years ago, someone who is mentally ill will latch onto that rhetoric in an attempt to bring meaning to their confused lives by implementing suggested “solutions.” In more sinister cases, totalitarian believers will find justification and support through those words and act in organized ways to upend society.
Can we make a pact, not to look for opportunities to insult? Instead, let’s capitalize on chances to persuade and encourage, even when the other person believes something which seems diametrically opposed to our own point of view. We can disagree without hating the other person. It can be very difficult to restrain yourself when you feel offended or attacked (I know!); we need to do our best not to join in these “flame wars.”
We also must be willing to call out words and actions unbecoming to civil society, especially among those in positions of power. The influence of words spoken or tweeted by a leader is far out of proportion to that of the average person. Nearly everyone hears about them; nearly everyone is pushed by others to approve or reject those words. The responsible use of public communications by all our leaders, and especially the president, should be demanded. When they fail, we should all be able to stand together to tell them so.
People of good conscience also need to make a concerted effort to broaden their participation in society beyond those who look and think like themselves. One of the few goods to come from this weekend was the image of people of various races and backgrounds standing together to protest the racism of the neo-fascists. We should all take that as an invitation to stand for good as one people. When we mix and mingle, we learn about each other. We hear each other’s stories. We begin to understand other points of view. We don’t have to agree with everything in order to join against hate and violence. Maybe your participation, your story, will change someone’s point of view. Maybe their story will change your point of view.
Finally, perhaps the most difficult challenge: We need to reach out to those falling under totalitarianism’s sway. We need to interact with them, to show them the benefits of inclusion. We need to give them the chance to learn, to change, to grow. Absolutism pointed against them will only deepen divisions and allow hate to boil. We can disagree strongly and completely with their worldview while keeping open opportunities for communications and relations with individuals.
Fortunately, just as totalitarian stories have the power to engender hatred, violence, and fragmentation, other stories also have the power to grow love, peace, and relationships. We can enact these narratives in our lives which challenge the neo-fascist story and open the way for those stuck in that worldview to re-examine it and, hopefully, leave it behind. But we must unite in a story which sees its resolution in the principles of liberty, equality of justice and opportunity, and unity among many races, religions, classes, and philosophies. We must live the story that says we can celebrate differences in the characteristics of each person while holding firmly to the equality of each person’s humanity. We must stand against stories of division, and embrace stories of love.
You know what it’s like – to be gripped by a story. You are quickly drawn in, you absorb each sentence, and react to every twist and turn. Scene by scene, the narrative plays out in your mind.
Think about a specific story you’ve been told by your mother or father or a grandparent, one which you loved hearing the first time, would love to hear again – and would love to share with other family members who may not get a chance to listen to it in person.
Sometimes, someone will tell me, “My loved one has so many memories, and I love them all! Where do we begin if we want to record some of them?”
It can be a daunting task. Whether you are recording someone with your phone or you ask me to bring out my recording equipment and create a professional CD from the storytelling event, time will be limited. How can you be sure to make the most of those precious memories your loved one can share?
When I prepare for a recording session, I have the family complete a brief questionnaire. Much of the information I seek provides some general background to help me facilitate memories and stories. However, I also ask the family to list between three and five stories their loved one has told before which they would like to have recorded.
Quick note: No one has ever listed only three!
It is difficult to limit those memories. How can you decide which stories are the best, the ones you can’t afford not to record?
There are many aspects of narrative which could be considered, but we can boil it down to five characteristics which make a story memorable and gripping and something you want to be sure to share.
1. Vivid descriptions
Were they in the country – or on a road surrounded by 10-foot-tall corn? Was she riding in a car – or a light blue Ford Fairlane? Did the child smile – or was he grinning from ear to ear?
The strongest memories run thick with details. In fact, the details often sharpen the memory and propel it down the path of the story. Remembering the color of a dress or the tone of a voice recreates the emotions of memory, allowing the storyteller to re-enter the moment and bring fullness to the narrative. The storyteller also displays his or her personality more fully when those emotions are tapped (we’ll expand on that later). And you, the listener, are also drawn in by that emotion. A great story is soaked with details.
Now, we all recognize that each of us is different; where one may offer lavish detail on each point, another may be more subdued in their descriptions until they reach something they wish to focus on. That’s not a problem, that’s personality – and it’s exactly what we want to see. As someone close to the storyteller, you know this person’s communication style. The real question is, which stories had details so brilliant you were drawn into the narrative? What details did the storyteller relate which you can remember even now?
Stories that possess those vivid descriptions may be good candidates for recording.
2. Compelling characters
If you have decided to record your loved one, you can be sure there will be at least one character whom you care about in every story: your loved one!
In some cases, that may be all that is necessary for the story to be captivating. Even so, there are some other common “characters” from life who may make a story particularly important to record and share.
Your loved one’s parents and grandparents: The emotional connection between parent and child remains strong long after death has separated us. Grandparents are often central characters in some of our fondest childhood memories. What’s more, the stories we hear about these older generations pass along some of the emotion, some of the unity, some of the bond. These are often the stories which help us better understand who we are and from where we come. They have a value which transcends mere curiosity or nostalgia. In some important way, these stories are also about us.
Your loved one’s siblings: The emotion of close relationships is also on display in stories about brothers and sisters. We are drawn in to imagine family life in a different time. We see our own joys and challenges in those which played out in kitchens and cars and backyards many years ago. With these stories, we often get an insight into the storyteller’s own personality.
Your loved one’s spouse: Understanding the relationship between spouses opens a window on how your loved one views himself or herself. This includes current partners as well as those from the past if your loved one has been married more than once. Stories about the first time meeting, first dates, introductions to family, the births of children – these are times of vulnerability, times when your loved one was pulled by personal emotions. Learning about those events through stories can open windows on the relationships which set the stage for our own formative years.
3. An opponent
If you study almost any story which attracts your attention, you will find there is an opponent which blocks some goal or destination of the main character or characters. This opponent does not need to be another person, although it can be. An opponent may also be the weather, a mechanical problem, an animal, the landscape – anything standing between the main character and the goal.
Even when the opponent is a human, there doesn’t need to be ill intent. An opponent may be a father who once told your loved one when he was a boy that he was too small to ride the draft horse. An opponent may be a best friend who interrupted your loved one’s first date when she happened to come into the restaurant and sit down at the table to talk.
The opponent may, surprisingly, be your loved one, playing a dual role. Your loved one may have wished to call his future spouse many times, but couldn’t get up the courage for over a year. Your loved one may have promised to bring a cake to her aunt’s birthday party, only to discover she had forgotten it at home when she arrived. As the saying goes, we are often our own worst enemy.
Furthermore, the obstacle is not always overcome. For the ancient Greeks, the difference between a comedy and a tragedy was basically whether or not the hurdle blocking the goal was successfully surmounted.
Think about the stories you have heard your loved one tell in the past. What were some of the most notable obstacles? What or who stands out as something or someone which challenged the plans of your loved one in a favorite story? Seek to record stories with those intriguing opponents.
The unexpected often goes hand in hand with the opponent. Sometimes the appearance of opposition itself is the surprise. Sometimes the obstacle creates embarrassing situations, sudden changes in outlook or momentary opportunities. Often, the method of overcoming the opponent is the surprise.
We have all heard stories about problems arising with a loud bang under the car, a wind gust while out boating or a displeased mother standing behind us. When you have a bad cold and are unexpectedly asked to speak at an awards dinner or you run out of gas and on your walk to the station you see a doe and fawn, the surprises change the tenor of the story. Hooking a big bass on the last cast of the day or finding a bouquet and gift on your dresser when you thought he forgot your anniversary are examples of surprising resolutions to the obstacles in the stories.
Have you ever said, “Wow!” while listening to your loved one’s recollections? Have you ever laughed in shock and relief at how a story ended? Those are the kinds of stories you want to record and share.
5. Honest emotion
The people mentioned in stories are crucial. The details of events are enlightening. The unique perspective of the storyteller provides a window into the past.
Emotion is the mortar that holds those bricks together. Personality requires emotion.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the goal is to capture a little of the personality of the storyteller. Just as much as the stories, that personality – the opportunity to get to know someone important in our history – is what we want to secure and pass along to others.
For this reason, it is important to explore topics and people of interest to the storyteller, first and foremost. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ask about the people and events that pique your interest. You should. But don’t be surprised, and certainly don’t be frustrated, if those are not the exact same interests as the storyteller.
Occasionally, the emotion of one subject will build interest in another. In one session I recorded, a particular story requested by the family was told in brief at first, as the subject of the session was reminded of a different story and went off to tell that one instead. However, by allowing the excitement and drama of this unsolicited story to run its course, we were able to gently circle around to the requested story once again – and this time, it was full of details, flair, and emotion. This is the version we placed on the family’s CD, along with the great story that led into it.
Sometimes, though, the emotion just doesn’t come through in a story the way you thought it would. It happens. Maybe the next time you ask about it, it will. In the meantime, move on to other memory triggers, other people, other events which may draw out an energy-filled story. Eliciting emotive stories encourages that same emotion in the next story. As any storyteller becomes more comfortable, expressing emotions becomes more natural. Those honest emotions shine through, spotlighting the personality of the storyteller – something others will hear in your recording.
Ask, listen, share
In a world where we can text, tweet, post, email, and phone anytime from anywhere, it is a sad irony that we have never been more disconnected as a society. Perhaps the ease of contact has devalued our individual communications, and the relationships they nurture. Sharing time with the people we care about, in good times, conversation and storytelling, strengthens the bonds of appreciation and understanding. Yes, we learn facts, but far more importantly, we relate to one another at the level of friendship. Truth is deeper than fact. In sharing stories, we understand who others are, and so better understand who we are. When we record stories, we share these truths to a wider audience today and in the future.
So ask your loved ones about their past, their friends, their lives. Listen to what they say, how they say it and what it says about them. And share those stories by recording them for people far away and for those who will hear them in the future.
A postal worker was sorting letters but noticed something odd: a 2-cent stamp.
After some research, the post office learned when the letter was sent – 1931 – and found some relatives of the original addressee. This true story is amazing.
As it turns out, the letter was from a daughter to her mother. Her ironic message? She was apologizing for taking so long after promising to write.
Imagine a similar letter. What if it contained the memories of a woman who described the joys and pains of raising her family? What if it talked about her love for her children and her hopes and dreams for her grandchildren? What if it provided insights into the personalities of other family members, and of life in a unique time and place?
What if the intended recipient never got that letter?
What if it was addressed to you?
The stories and memories of parents, grandparents and other loved ones enrich our lives, helping us understand where we come from and who we are. Yet, they can be fragile, damaged by health issues, limited by time and restricted by geography. Opportunities to share and receive family stories may seem wide open – until they suddenly disappear.
What can we do about this danger?
Here are five suggestions for maintaining the transmission of family stories and memories.
1. Ask your older loved ones to share their stories.
When you visit grandma, have lunch with your uncle or host a birthday party for your dad, ask your loved one about childhood, school, family chores, a first car, a first date. Explore the past. Open doors to sharing memories.
Focus on shared experiences. Did you just move into a new home? Ask your loved one what his or her first home was like. Are you currently a little burned out in your job? Ask what job was your loved one’s least favorite. Did you recently get a surprise call from a distant friend? Ask which friends your loved one has stayed in contact with despite geographical separation.
Reviewing past conversations reinvigorates the old stories you have enjoyed. Investigating new territory brings out new stories full of value. You restore the lines of transmission.
2. Bring your children/grandchildren along when visiting older relatives.
It’s a common problem: Children and teens become enveloped in their own activities and start “skipping out” of family time, including social visits. Yet, these are the times when young minds begin to have enough life experience to understand and absorb these stories. They need to be present.
The problem is often straightforward: boredom. The focus of the conversation is among the adults, and children are left to wander off and find their own entertainment, if they can. It is in your power to keep that from happening. Talk to your older family members about their experiences as a child. You might be surprised how attentive your children become. Shared experience interests kids just as much as adults.
Encourage your children to both listen and talk. They must be involved if they are going to maintain attention. They will be more connected if they are affirming similar experiences and encouraged to ask questions.
The memories they carry from those conversations will ground them in the family narrative.
3. Promote listening and storytelling with other members of your family.
Set a good example by asking questions and listening to the memories of older members of your family, but do even more. Relate your enjoyment of these stories and encourage your siblings and cousins to participate by asking their own questions when they visit elders. We all have individual interests and experiences. By bringing their unique insights to the table, these relatives can elicit new memories, new stories, and new details to enrich family history.
As an additional value, expanding the opportunities for storytelling will make your older loved ones better storytellers. Practice makes perfect. What’s more, the encouragement of more audiences will bring greater enjoyment to the storyteller. It’s a win all around.
4. Tell your stories.
It’s never too early to start passing along your memories and stories to others. You have lived a unique life. That life is intricately connected to others who are older, of the same generation, and younger. Practice sharing your stories with them all.
As you do so, you’ll begin to recognize improvement in your own storytelling. You will note the interests of your audience, and cater to them. You will sharpen the delivery, improving the drama, the pathos, and the humor. You will appreciate audience response as you enlighten and entertain.
You will also be building a connection. The experiences of your life will transform into shared stories. A foundational unity will bind your identity with those of your loved ones.
5. Secure family stories – now!
Time waits for no one. A year from now, you may be in a different job 600 miles from where you currently live – and from the older loved ones whose stories are so important. Your loved one may have a health issue which makes communication much more challenging. Your loved one – or you – may be gone.
Back when I sold life insurance, I found this “mortality” argument uncomfortable – until a gentleman I had come to really like told me his doctor had diagnosed him with a terminal illness. Fortunately, he had life insurance which would help take care of his family on his passing. From that point on, I didn’t let my own squeamishness keep me from advocating financial planning in preparation for death, which, sooner or later, will claim us all.
Securing your family’s memories and stories is the social equivalent of protecting your family’s finances. You won’t really be doing this for yourself; you will be doing it for your children and their children and generations thereafter.
And just as life insurance is only one of many options for securing your family’s finances when you pass away, there are several ways you can secure your family’s stories.
An option available to everyone is to self-record. For those of us who have used technology all our lives, this is simple: Open the voice recorder app on your phone and press “Record.” Then ask your loved one those questions we discussed in suggestion 1 above. You may need to stop and start a few times, and you may need to learn a few minor tricks to make the file permanent and shareable, but at least you will have some of that precious family material to pass along to others.
If you are recording your own stories, try to do so with the help of one or more family members or friends. Your stories will come across as more organic and authentic if they are drawn out by an audience. These “facilitators” will also spur new memories and stories you might not have thought to relate without their involvement. Storytelling is most effective when the teller and an audience are present together.
You can also ask your loved one to write out his or her stories. This can be valuable if the details, like names, relationships, and ancestry, are the crucial pieces you wish to preserve. However, writing a long narrative can be tedious work. Furthermore, the written word may not convey the unique personality of the storyteller if that person is not experienced in literary writing. One of my goals when recording spoken stories is to convey a sense of the person speaking. This can be lost in a written format.
The most certain and effective way to secure and share the stories and memories of your loved one is to schedule a session with a professional story recorder. A facilitator can work with you to design questions which will draw forth the stories you long to preserve. Professional recording equipment will capture the sounds in all their depth and clarity. Sound engineers will process the recording to edit out distractions and interruptions while staying true to the pace and presentation of the person telling the stories. The stories will be marked off into separate tracks which can be easily searched and played or shared individually. The final production will be burned to compact disk and professionally packaged with label and cover artwork. From there, you will be able to play it for yourself and others as well as share it with family members today and far into the future.
At Legacy Chronicles Life Stories, we are dedicated to faithfully capturing, securing and sharing family stories. I like to say Legacy Chronicles Life Stories is my business, but proclaiming the value of securing and sharing your family’s stories is my mission. I hope you will do all you can to preserve these precious memories for your family. You can follow our tips and suggestions to begin preserving those stories yourself today. If you would like Legacy Chronicles Life Stories to assist in this process, please contact us.
Deliver the mail - preserve your stories!