Stories & Resilience

What's your story

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”* 

There is much written on stories, the power of stories and their ability to connect us and help us learn and grow. In fact, recent research has shown that children who know their family story are able to withstand more of life’s troubles than those that don’t. In a word, they are more ‘resilient’.

The research comes from two psychologists out of Emory University. They developed a tool called “Do You Know” that asked children to answer 20 questions about their families. They found that the more a child knew about their family the higher their self-esteem and their ability to withstand stress, to function normally. It turned out to be the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Because it is about being a part of a bigger story, being a part of something larger than we are.

I think about this, about resilience and the family narrative and look back on some of the chapters of the story. In my story there is the chapter where “Grandma K” lost Grandpa, he was only 50 years old. My mom was thousands of miles across the ocean and received the news by telegram. My cousin Leslie Ann was there, remembers his stomachache, how they all thought it was about something he ate. But it wasn’t – it was a heart attack. Grandma K weathered her grief and loss with grace, moving on to welcome many more grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren into the family narrative.

There is the chapter where my oldest brother almost drowned in a canal in Pakistan, a family friend rescuing him and my mother doing CPR – something she had just read about in a Reader’s Digest, praying all the while that he would live.

There is the chapter where my mom stood on the roof of our home in Ratodero on Christmas Eve, deeply discouraged, lonely and alone. Friends from a town 45 minutes away on a dusty road drove to surprise us, singing Christmas Carols to announce their arrival. Another chapter where my oldest brother, but 28 years old, lost his first wife to cancer, leaving behind both him and a beautiful 4-year old – Melanie Joy.

There are too many chapters to count – one goes all the way back to John Howland of the Mayflower.

And then there are the chapters that my nuclear family have written, are writing. Those chapters include Pakistan, Egypt, Istanbul, Essex, holidays, plane rides, arriving in the United States with all our earthly possessions in 26 suitcases and an Egyptian Siamese cat, pictures of Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in a heart-shaped frame on our mantle, tea-time on winter nights, curry and kusherie, lots of goodbyes, a wedding….and that does not include crazy traditions and inside jokes that are all a part of the story.

The narrative continues day after day, year after year where we are a part of both a bigger, extended family unit, and our own smaller unit. Woven through the years in both these narratives are the good times and the hard times, the richer times, the poorer times, the times of sick and the times of well. The tapestry is made up of joy, grief, anger, peace, strife, reconciliation and laughter….always there has been laughter. 

But for me this is about more than research, more than resilience from a family story. It’s about being part of a far bigger and far greater story – a story written by God himself. A story that tells of redemption and restoration, that gives me something greater than a family narrative, bigger than any earthly memories.

It’s this story, a story that tells of people willing to risk all because they believed, a story that gets bigger and better and truer each passing day, that gives me resilience, that tells me I am part of a narrative that is larger than all I am and all I have.

Because the story I’m in now, as good and as hard as it sometimes is, is just the beginning of that Great Story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” from The Last Battle by CS Lewis

*From “The Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler published in NY Times “This Life”.
Image credit: convisum / 123RF Stock Photo

17 thoughts on “Stories & Resilience

  1. How’d you manage to do it again ?! I was just falling asleep thinking about getting my mum to write me some stories about childhood events from her perspective. When my sister and I met back (she was in Germany I was in China) in our passport country (England) in 2010 to travel France and Switzerland together my uncle let me look through letters from my Granny. That narrative was so powerful along with re-enacting pictures from when we were young.

    The strong bond and stories my parents told us do resignate deeply with me but it leaves me craving more, and wondering if resilience is enough … Or when it’s okay to stumble in that resilience…..

    Christina
    http://lujiayin.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/standing-up-straight/

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    1. Your comment “wondering if the resilience is enough” really stuck with me after I read it late last night. Maybe resilience means that we do stumble…but we get back up. In a comment below I detailed what the researchers saw as the most healthy narrative, and that’s called the oscillating narrative. You can read more below under Stacy’s comment, but I think it speaks to that resilience is about falling, then rising, then falling again – yet never giving up. Thanks so much for adding to this discussion Christina – heading to your link right now.

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  2. I love our family stories too… the jokes round the table when Dad launches into one, telling it to someone new. They’re all stories which in one way or another point to God’s grace. I think it must be like the Jewish people who told the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses etc…

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  3. Sometimes I am surprised by the bits of the story that our kids don’t know! Things that seem so important to me …and they haven’t heard it!
    How can we tell our story in such a way that our children hear it…and hear themselves in it? How can we tell the Story of Redemption so they long to be a part of that grander Tale? these are the things I wonder about….

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    1. Maybe we (I) try too hard to tell it instead of living it and praying that it permeates all we do…. I think I’ll be a better grandma then I am a mom…..

      Sent from my iPhone

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  4. I love this, Marilyn. Knowing our stories is so important. In our family we spend a lot of time retelling the favorites and asking questions. I have been encouraging my father to write the ones he remembers about growing up. He tried to tell me he couldn’t because he wasn’t used to “that type of writing” because he is an engineer but I persevered and have gotten two of them out of him so far. My mother, on the other hand, is always sending me notes with dates and timelines. Where we lived when. Copies of her budget when she and Daddy first married back in 1957. Dates of birth, marriage, baptism. Notes my grandfather wrote about his daily life. I treasure it all.

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    1. Reading about how your mom has copies of the budget she and your dad had is so poignant – a reminder that before you were – they existed as a couple starting out. One of the interesting pieces of the research is they talk about 3 narratives: Ascending – “We had nothing and worked our way up” Descending – “We had it all and then the stock market crashed” and Oscillating – “we’ve had good time and bad but we always stuck together, we always made it through. Research showed that the last was the most healthful. Someone died…but the family healed. Someone lost their house – everyone came together to house them. Someone got a promotion – the family celebrated. A reminder of the ups and downs of life, and to those of us who hold to a Christian worldview, that in those ups and downs God is ever-present. Thanks Stacy!

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  5. Marilyn, I agree with you. During their elementary years 2 of my grandchildren were in a class and the teacher asked them to write their story. They came to us for facts, wanting to know about my life when their age. In the last couple of years we had requests from 2 college nieces who were writing their history. a requirement for a class. They came to us for genealogy, etc. Learning that an indentured servant, a horse trader, an Indian, Revolutionary War and Civil War participants add to the interest and intrigue of our ancestry. Everyone has a story and blessed are those who learn and cherish theirs.

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  6. In college I took an Inklings class (quite a special thing at a state school like the University of Kansas). At some point this issue came up, and I talked about how I saw myself and my family as part of the history of missions in Latin America and the history of the church through the ages. My extended family and ancestry are part of the narrative; preachers and missionaries going back to colonial Boston and England, my dad’s ancestor Hugo Grotius…

    The prof asked the rest of the class whether they identified with this. I don’t remember any of them saying they felt like they were a part of a story bigger than themselves. I felt bad for them.

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    1. So interesting – an amazing heritage. I would have loved to take an Inklings class – what a great opportunity! I would agree that I feel a sadness when I hear people express that they don’t feel a part of something larger than them.

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  7. This is one of the reasons that my family hopes to travel back to the country where we lived for 6 years and where my children spent their first years. It is an important part of our story and they are starting to forget. When we talk about couscous and camel rides and our dear friends, I want them to not feel guilty because they can’t remember. We don’t always have the luxury of being able to revisit the places where our story was written, but I’m glad that this time we can. I hope that this will make this chapter of their story more real in their minds.

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    1. Yes! I’m so glad you are doing this. We had the same thing with our kids. We took the three oldest back to Egypt first – a hard, hard but good trip; then took our two youngest, who were born in Egypt, back a few years later. I remember at the time having this major expensive plumbing problem and thinking “Should we be going?” To which my husband replied “yes!” .It turned out to be the right decision. I look forward to hearing more from your story when you return….

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