Annapolis Institute Overview


Family tales tell us who we are

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, November 15, 1995

Thanksgiving time is here again. Thanksgiving is important because, along with Christmas, it’s a holiday when families come together. That’s important because family gatherings are a time when people tell stories, family stories, morality tales that give young people cues about right and wrong, and about struggles where there are winners and losers.

Family stories also identify heroes and villains — real people who become strong positive or negative role models. Every family has them: “Uncle Jack has had a tough row to hoe. He lost his job three times, but he kept bouncing back. That’s the way Uncle Jack is. He’s got true grit and a strong backbone.”

Stories are important. Noted Harvard theologian Harvey Cox says, in favorably characterizing the views of Regent University President Terry Lindvall, that “the next century will be shaped by the people who can tell the best stories.” And for good reason: Stories, not just facts and data, are what move people, organizations and nations to bigger and better things.

Good stories inspire. They convey knowledge. They create heroes and role models. They instill values.

Indeed, the problem with New Age philosophy is its empty, Analytical approach, which is divorced from context and roots. New Age stories are not rooted in history; they are not tied to epic struggles. New Agers debunk heroes and deconstruct heroic deeds. New Age stories are more like prefabricated vignettes, shake-and-bake recitals, the moral equivalent of magnet notes on the refrigerator door. As Cox says, “Without roots, disembodied ‘values’ become mere preferences and eventually dissolve into the ether.”

Real stories about real people, yarns rooted in the history of a family or a society are what all people need Oldsters need to tell these stories — and work at telling them so their story line is clear and the punchlines crisp. Youngsters need to hear stories, well-told stories, because that’s how they learn about good and bad — and about shame and stigma, important ways of characterizing what we are close to losing and need to resurrect

That’s how they learn about heroes and villains, good: guys and bad guys — because the world has good guys and bad guys. And that’s how they learn respect and reverence — because there are people who deserve our respect and deeds that deserve to be revered.

In our family, Thanksgiving is a time to tell stories. We always tell a Thanksgiving story, e.g., about the Pilgrims or the search for freedom and liberty in the face of repression, or about harvest festivals celebrated in other cultures. There are literally hundreds of ways to tell a Thanksgiving story.

We also tell family stories: How Uncle Rudy always took the kids hunting on Thanksgiving morning, or how Uncle Walt flew a B-24 bomber in World War II, or what happens to the food we collect for the homeless shelter. Thanksgiving is a time to pray for those less fortunate and to recommit as a family to sharing our time and our own good fortune to helping others get back on their feet.

Thanksgiving is also a time for phone calls to family and friends — calls that can be preceded or relived by telling stories about the people we are calling so the kids can learn about our values in the context of our relationships with friends and family.

So Thanksgiving is coming and with it a responsibility to tell stories, real stories, that those around us, especially little ones, can learn from. Begin with recalling the details of your most memorable Thanksgiving. As Muriel Ruckeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

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