Stories refuel family culture
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 25, 1997
The holiday season is here again. Thanksgiving. Then Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s. This is the time of year when families still come together. They kick back and relax. Many even talk, and when they talk, most will tell stories. Adults will share with kids the achievements and the antics of moms and dads, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. It is a time when the traditions of a family are amplified and the embers of a family culture are refueled.
Author, educator and storyteller Norma Livo says, “The ability to tell stories — by ancient peoples as well as today’s suburbanites — is the only art that exists in all human cultures. It is through stories that we experience our lives. The ability to story is what sets people apart from all the other creatures of the Earth. It may be the one element that defines us as humans.”
Writer Muriel Ruckeyser takes it a step further. “The universe,” she says, “is made of stories, not atoms” — a view that seems to be supported by the enduring popularity of Aesop’s fables or the fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen or by the sales of anthologies of virtues by Bill Bennett or of Christmas stories by Joe Wheeler.
Regent University President Terry Lindvall has said 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. According to Livo, “Stories can be used to build self-confidence and persistence, to impart values and hopes, to demonstrate follies and triumphs, and to develop an optimistic outlook on life and show the listener or the reader that he or she is not the only one who ever experienced problems.”
Thanksgiving dinner is great time to tell stories, especially family yarns that focus on real people doing real deeds. We adults need to work at telling stories, to make sure they have clear story lines and crisp punchlines. Youngsters need to hear well-told stories because that’s how they learn about good and bad — including shame and stigma and respect and reverence. It’s an important way of describing behavior that we are in danger of losing in our “anything goes” culture.
In our family, we typically ask each person at the table to describe his or her favorite Thanksgiving or the one they remember the most. Sometimes we tell a story from history — e.g., about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving.
Holidays are also a good time for younger kids to interview grandparents or other oldsters, providing both storytelling and story-listening skills. Examples: When was the first time you saw TV? What were your favorite programs? When was the first time you rode in an airplane? What were my great-great-grandparents like? When and where were they born? What country did our family come from? Why did they leave there? Where did you meet grandma (grandpa)? What were your first impressions? What was your favorite food when you were a child? What was your first job? How much money did you make? What do you remember about the Depression (or World War II or JFK’s death)? What was Dad/Mom’s worst habit growing up? Vera Rosenblut, author of Keeping Family Stories Alive, says the act of interviewing elders deepens all the bonds that tie a family together‹grandparents, parents, children. We should work at it.
Holidays and homecomings are approaching and with them a responsibility to tell stories that those around us, especially little ones, can learn from. It is not just a matter of passing on family traditions and the values of a culture, it’s also about surviving and prospering in the modern world. As Danish futurist Rolf Jenson says, “In today’s information society, we prize those who can skillfully manipulate data…in tomorrow’s society, we will most generously reward those who can tell stories.”