“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” ― Rudyard Kipling
It’s a universal truth that we are all the products of the history that shaped our parents and our grandparents before them. My husband and I were each born into a family of teachers. In turn, our parents were born into farm families who had already forged a way of life on the American prairie two generations before our parents’ were born. Consequently, we were raised on family stories about perseverance through hardship–crop failures, floods and blinding blizzards, the dust bowl days, the depression, the fearful uncertainty of the war years, and living on rations, and beans, and made-over clothes.
Some of the stories were unsettling to be sure, but these stories nurtured our belief that our families always prevailed. After all, there sat our grandmother or grandfather, right in front of us—in storyteller mode, obviously a survivor and savoring every detail. Their family narratives passed on to us a pervading sense that we would prevail, too, no matter the circumstances.
In late 1990s psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush tested a hypothesis that children who were most resilient when faced with challenges were those who had an ample knowledge of their family’s history. Duke and Fivush developed twenty questions they referred to as the “Do You Know?” Scale: “Do you know the story of your birth?” “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” for example, and they asked these questions to children from four dozen families. The researchers compared the children’s responses to their performance in a series of psychological tests and determined, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned” (qtd. in Feiler).
On a broader scale, history is just as important to adults. There is an abiding value in learning all we can about past events–ancient as well as recent. Whether for better or worse, these events have influenced the cultures in which we and others live. For instance, what events in the past led to the formation of labor unions and why must we fight to keep them intact today? Or, how has socialism impacted other cultures and what might we sacrifice if it is implemented in our country? Or, what mistakes did we make in American diplomacy in the past that might prevent missteps in the future?
No matter our age and especially as we grow older, we are obligated to contribute to the well-being of future generations by being a link to the past and acting on what we know by sharing our skills as mentors and tutors, by voting, by writing letters to our representatives, by inspiring our children and grandchildren with the stories of those who have succeeded before us.
Check here soon-to-be posted articles about genealogy, epigenetics, and a recent and frustrating experience I’ve titled, “Don’t be Duped by Ulysses S. Grant.
Feiler, Bruce. “The Family Stories that Bind Us.” The New York Times, 15 March 2013. Retrieved on 9 March 2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html