There’s an African proverb that tells us, “When an old man dies, a library burns.” It’s a powerful observation—and all too true. The experiences of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors are lost to us when they pass on if we haven’t taken the time to discover and document their stories. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realize what treasures those family histories might hold until we reach “a certain age” ourselves.
In Western society, we sometimes view the greatest legacy as the wealth we inherit from our parents or grandparents. With this inheritance, we are likely to feel more secure in our lives, less fearful of being unable to care for ourselves and our children in the future.
But is financial security the best inheritance? I believe not. I believe that family cohesiveness is one of the best legacies we can leave to our families: a sense of who they are and how they belong in the family unit. This security of place and welcome is a key foundation to happiness.
Stories provide roots for a family, and as the success of the 1970s show Roots and later genealogy shows illustrate, we all want to know where we come from.
Family stories can bring a family together. When we share stories, we share a common bond. Without that bond, families begin to drift apart, to feel disconnected from one another. And that is a loss to all members of the family. Perhaps family members feel that they have nothing in common. They don’t live in the same state, they share no experiences, they are not part of each other’s lives. In our mobile society today, this is all to typical.
But get those dispersed family members together, for a wedding or funeral all too typically, and shared stories begin to draw the family together again. Their immediate lives might be so diverse and so polar opposite that they might feel they have nothing in common, but they can discover commonality in stories of those who have gone before, members whom they both share in the family line.
Family stories and the histories they preserve have a remarkable power to bind generations together through their shared connections to the past. I think most of us intuitively recognize that there’s a lot of significance in family lore, but research suggests it has the potential to profoundly influence our children and grandchildren for the better.
Why does family history matter so much? In part, it’s because being a part of something bigger than ourselves helps give us roots. Some experience it as a spiritual connection with their ancestors. It boils down to understanding that we come from a shared past, and that our families will go on after we’re gone. There’s a certain comfort in knowing you’re part of a timeline—or a family tree—that continues to grow and change.
Novelist George Meredith once wrote “Memoirs are the back stairs of history.” Those back stairs preserve a piece of the past for future generations.
You set an excellent example by documenting your own story. Once you have begin, I suggest that you encourage all family members to be aware of their own unique stories. If you have elderly parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives, now is the perfect time to ask them to share their stories with you—or better yet, ask them to share them with a member of the youngest generation and let that person report to the whole family.
Remind your children and other younger family members that their own stories are vital to the family collection. People of any age can be the bearers of tradition. Give your family roots off of which they can grow and strengthen themselves and their own families.