In 2007 the power of story showed up in my life out of nowhere and what started as a little spark became a toasty fire that gets me out of bed before dawn each day. People’s stories have become my life’s devotion. This is why I left a great day job to start a business centered on people’s stories. Now I am a full-time biographer and family historian and my passion is helping everyone tell their story because I do believe everyone has a story to share.
An apple falls from the tree
Before I go on, a word about ending up with my own business after a comfortable state job. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. At basically this same age, my parents started a crazy family business that nobody understood at the time. It was 1969, and because of intuition and a big idea to help people, they became early pioneers in the natural health movement. Their adventure blessed me with the coolest, quirkiest childhood a kid could want. The family business also gave me opportunities I could never have dreamed about otherwise. Ultimately their saga became my first book, Every Essential Element, and the process of writing my mom’s memoir changed me forever. Step-by-step, it led me here.
With that brief backstory, I’d like to share my three core beliefs about the power of story. They are:
First: Stories knit families together.
Second: Stories turn random events into meaning.
Third: Stories are only the way 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:
I’ve got a lot of personal anecdotes, but for purposes today, there is another compelling source. In a 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 pored over the literature and then a surprising theme emerged: “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 noticed an unexpected correlation: children who knew a lot about their families did better when challenges hit. They tested the hypothesis by asking children to answer 20 questions like: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know of something terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”
“We were blown away,” the researcher said.
The children’s answers told whether they had a sense of being part of a larger family, the research stated. Children with the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
(Maybe I was such an angel child because my parents were so good at telling family stories. Seriously they rocked this. And just ask my mother. She’ll totally tell you I was perfect in every way.)
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 not advising us to Clorox the tale.
The bottom line of his work: if you want a happier, more resilient family then intentionally create and retell 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 all of our families will thrive for generations to come.
Really, I could stop here because this is reason enough to tell family stories. Still, I have two more reasons. The second point in my thesis is this:
2. Stories turn random events into meaning
Since the dawn of creation, humans have been telling stories around the fire. The Bible is in a story format for a reason. (Except for the boring parts we skim over—those aren’t stories. Those are genealogy reports, sprinkled with some beautiful poetry.)
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.
Humans are wired for story. We walk around assigning meaning through language throughout each day. We’re all storytellers in our heads, and most of us will tell anybody who will listen. With just a few facts, we are capable of shaping an entire narrative about what our lives mean. We are storytelling animals.
No story, no meaning.
Finally, my third belief is this:
3. Stories are only the way 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 8 great-grandparents can you name from memory?
Do details and personality traits come to mind about all 8 of your great-grandparents? Do you know how you take after these ancestors or how you don’t? What were their heartbreaks and joys? 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 and I feel like I know them well.
Am I right that the ones you remember have stories attached?
It is curious to me that we spend so much money on granite markers to withstand time, yet these markers only provide a name and a date, maybe a quote. Stone monuments tell nothing about people’s lives or what they learned in their time on earth. 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.
The cemeteries are full of people who though they were irreplaceable.
If you don’t tell your story, who will? It reminds me of song from Hamilton, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
The Power of Story in Your Life and in your business:
I have 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. There are times when I see something in them that they 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. In my own family, being aware of how an inter-generational narrative strengthens families, has made us more intentional about preserving that narrative. When I notice stories that illustrate our values, I take time to record and share them with the next generation.
In my experience doing family interviews, writing and speaking, most people intuitively know the value of personal history, but they’re burdened by the work. They don’t know where to start, or they don’t believe they have the writing skills. That is why I started this business and why it is such a joy to do this work. I hope you enjoy all the free tools and resources at www.Evalogue.LIfe, and that we can connect.
By Rhonda Lauritzen, founder and an author at Evalogue.Life, where we tell personal and family stories that inspire. (Let us help you tell yours!) Rhonda lives to hear and tell about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an old Victorian in Ogden and work together in Evalogue.Life, weaving family and business together.
Questions Everyone Should Ask
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