Your story flows from your family story

By Scott Schimmel

“Well, that reminds me of my time in ‘The War’...” 

Oops- we had done it again! Someone sitting around the living room had said something that slightly related to a current global situation, and my grandfather launched into his 1,000th retelling of one of his three classic ‘war stories’ from his time in the Army as a medic in World War II. 

This time, though, even though I could retell the story in my sleep, I thought it would be important to listen carefully. I quietly pressed record on our video camera and captured him tell the story so we could remember the details forever, long after he was gone. His war stories have become a part of my story, legends that guide the kind of person I want to become. 

One of the most important things families can give to the next generation is a clear understanding of their family narrative. Research has shown in recent years that the most predictive indicator of an emerging adult’s emotional wellbeing and resiliency is an awareness of where they come from, and who they come from. 

People need to understand that their lives have a deep foundation; that they come from somewhere and that their lives are continuing a story. 

The stories don’t have to be overwhelmingly positive either. In fact, there are different kinds of family narratives:

The ascending narrative: it’s a story based on growth and accomplishments and overcoming the odds- “We came here with nothing, and look what we built.”

The descending narrative: it’s a family story based on what used to be, and what was lost. “We used to be something, we were significant, and then your grandfather lost it all.”

The oscillating narrative: research shows that this is the most helpful, because it’s the most true. It’s a family story that tells the good and the bad, the accomplishments and the failures, the ups and the downs- “We’ve been through a lot, but we always stick together no matter what.”

The oscillating narrative is the most valuable because the story actually helps you interpret current reality in a meaningful way. It helps you recognize that no matter what the current situation is, it’s going to change. And regardless of the situation, you’re going to make it through and be okay. 

Some families are tempted to hide their stories. Secrets are kept to protect the innocent, and a false narrative is built. Don’t do that- it’s not helpful. People always find out the truth, and then it’s even worse because significant trust is destroyed. 

During these last few days of the year, as your family gathers together, take some intentional time to recall and retell your stories.

Here are some ideas for the stories that you can remember together this holiday season:

  • Stories of relationships starting (ie. grandparents meeting, parents meeting)
  • Birth stories and pregnancy stories
  • Wedding stories
  • Stories of when people died
  • The origin of family traditions, games and nicknames
  • Old pet stories
  • First job, worst job, best job stories
  • War stories
  • Where-were-you-when stories: man landing on the moon, Challenger space shuttle, 9/11, etc
  • School stories
  • Getting in trouble stories
  • First girlfriend/boyfriend stories
  • Fistfight stories
  • Drinking-too-much stories

Nothing should be off limits because nothing is wasted. Every story represents a reality, a lesson learned, and a new viewpoint on the world. Become the curator of stories this week; collect them and share them. The storytelling could become a new story in itself.