Family Stories Make Us Stronger

“Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time.
It is the way wisdom gets passed along.”
-Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

With the holidays upon us, chances are you will find yourself listening to family stories. If you are hearing them for the umpteenth time, you might feel like rolling your eyes or tuning them out. Instead, sit back and listen a little bit more carefully. These stories are probably making you stronger.

Last summer I came across a New York Times article titled “Stories that Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler describing an interesting fact about family stories. Recent research reveals that children who have heard family stories about life’s ups and downs develop resilience and strength. Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, psychologists at Emory University (one of my alma maters!) have found that children who know a lot about their family history tend to face life’s challenges better than those who don’t. Hearing family stories make us better able to face adversity.

Simple questions asked of our elders can evoke conversations that reveal a valuable family narrative:

Where did you grow up?
What is the story of your birth?
What illnesses or challenges did you encounter?
What are some important lessons that you have learned?

Personally, I love hearing family stories that make me laugh. They remind me to laugh in the face of embarrassing and humbling situations.

One of my favorite stories that is part of my fiber involves my mother and her mother (“Muzzy”). A few years after the sequential sudden deaths of Mom’s brother and father, Mom and Muzzy traveled together to Europe on vacation. Mom was in her early twenties. They were enjoying a perfectly delightful evening at a fancy Paris restaurant and were dressed in their fine clothes, speaking eloquent French with the wait staff. Following their meal they tried to make a gracious departure from the restaurant. Mom opened the door for her mother, whisked Muzzy through the door, and followed her, shutting the door behind her. Ooopsies! It turns out they stumbled on top of one another right into the cleaning closet! The maître di and the waiter rushed after them, flabbergasted. The men opened the door and pulled these two lovely ladies out of the buckets, mops, and debris, and helped them proceed to the correct exit door. They laughed, out of both embarrassment and amusement, and that laughter has echoed for years afterward.

This particular family story has been quite helpful in the face of my own klutzy, humbling situations. For example, while on the way to my law school moot court argument (an absolutely terrifying endeavor for me), I fell off my new high heels and stumbled down a flight of stairs. Not to be dissuaded from the task at hand, I showed up in front of a panel of attorneys from Atlanta with a gaping gash in my chin, blood on my lovely new suit, and several runs in my stockings. What is one to do in this situation but carry on and laugh? (That and go directly to the hospital to get multiple stitches!). This story now lives in family lore, hopefully helping future generations who are sure to experience embarrassing and humbling episodes.

So as you gather around the table or the hearth, or if you find yourself packed in a car with multiple generations, take time to listen to the crazy, surprising, and often inspiring family stories. You will be made stronger and wiser.

Bruce Feiler,