Guest post by Paul A. Miller
As a folk historian and facilitator with Legacy Chronicles Life Stories, it should come as no surprise that I believe in the value of securing and sharing these precious memories of our loved ones.
I am convinced family storytelling can bring together generations, restoring and strengthening relationships while educating each of us about our own backgrounds. Family stories help us understand where we come from and who we are.
But can family storytelling also improve mental health?
I’m not a mental health expert; nevertheless, from my experience, I believe so. Here are four ways sharing family stories can promote a healthy mind in both the teller and the listener.
Identity has become a buzzword in America’s political battlegrounds, but this concept is basic to a person’s mental health.
We grow and maintain healthy relationships with others when reaching out from a place of understanding who we are as individuals.
Storytelling fosters construction of identity in two ways. For the storyteller, expressing those memories affords an opportunity to create a unique style and character. The stories themselves often portray the teller as the protagonist, and the teller narrates his or her own drama which re-enforces specific aspects of that identity.
The listeners learn and engage with parts of their familial background, providing additional material to be used in constructing their own identities. I personally found this to be the case when my father told me the story of his childhood. Though a third-generation American, as a child his family spoke German almost exclusively. For me, an appreciation for the challenges of immigrant families and non-English speakers is more than a policy choice or a moral imperative, it is part of the background of who I am. It is part of my self-identity.
As each of us looks back over our experiences, we inevitably see commonalities. We connect the dots. We formulate a vector for our life.
One gentleman I recorded had overcome two major challenges in life: addiction and a debilitating accident which cost him two limbs. In his storytelling, these major events, either of which he could have blamed for derailing hope for a happy life, instead became segments of highway on a road which is leading somewhere. They give him direction and point to a purpose which he now actively pursues.
An audience can also find direction in the example of the storyteller. Life can seem a little random sometimes – at least mine can! Experiencing the wisdom of our loved ones through stories can open up new ways to interpret our complicated lives, ways which may point toward opportunities we had not considered. We feel peace with purpose, and our mental outlook improves.
Among the great tragedies of our day is the pervasive loneliness in society. Although our technology connects us in ways never dreamed of even 50 years ago, that same technology separates us from human contact.
I may learn of the activities of a friend on the West Coast in great detail, but I can’t shake his hand or look him in the eye. I may tweet back and forth with my cousin, but we still don’t actually meet and talk. The human element is fading from our communications, and with it, our sense of mutuality and relationship.
When close friends or family members come together, they inevitably tell stories – stories about their work, their pastimes, their activities, their friends, their challenges. They draw a portrait of who they are in their story selection, in their speaking style and in the details they provide. The teller receives the gift of self-expression, which affirms individual value even as it includes the teller in a wider community with the audience.
The listeners receive a gift as well: understanding. Even when the story is challenging or boring – even when it makes no sense – the story is educating the audience about this person whom they care about, uniting them as humans. They may be of different opinions and outlooks, but teller and audience are united as a community in the storytelling setting.
In a recording session I held recently, two siblings remembered a story in substantially different fashion. They contradicted each other on several points, argued a bit about who was right – then allowed each other to finish the story in their own way. United as tellers and audience, they felt an obligation to mutual respect in the presentation and reception of the story, told separately. In the end, they laughed together over faulty memories! The sense of community was maintained.
Shared Stories, Healthy Minds
We are social animals. Our relationships largely define how we look at ourselves and how we react to the challenges of life.
We are storytellers. The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson has said, “The human species thinks through metaphors and learns through stories.” We use stories to pass on vital information, not only on facts and figures but in concepts, in art, in ethics, and in truth.
We are an audience. We cannot help but listen in on a good story. We spend billions of dollars entertaining ourselves with stories in movies, television programs, plays, and books.
My grandfather lived a large and exciting life. Farmer, brewer, policeman, restaurateur, liquor control agent – he did it all. He traded in Cadillacs, snowmobiles, and horses. He nearly blew up his garage more than once. He was a fireworks-shooting, cigar-smoking fisherman extraordinaire.
And while people often remember his various careers, his trading ventures or his highly-colorful language, what they generally recall most are his stories. People still smile and laugh when they hear I am Woody Tuohy’s grandson. To put it simply, his stories brought people joy, and he enjoyed telling them.
Immerse yourself in the stories of your loved ones. Tell a few stories yourself. Include the younger members of your family in this celebration of our humanity. It can’t help but improve your outlook on life.