During an evening discussion focused on grief and resilience, one theme continued to pop up: the importance of stories and story sharing.
The noted panelists at the New York Open Center, including award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien and noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., opened up about their own family histories, personal loss, and the things that helped them heal. And amidst the many nuggets of wisdom they passed on to the audience, quite a few of their prescriptions for resilience were applicable at any time in our lives, not only during a period of grieving.
Here are two huge benefits of storytelling that were highlighted during this dynamic conversation.
Stories help us feel connected.
I remember asking my grandmother where we were from. “America,” she would say. Before that? “It doesn’t matter.”
I once asked her something about her school years; she teared up, but remained silent. “I did not have a happy childhood.” Case closed.
My grandparents’ past was a complete mystery to me. And I am not alone.
While some kids grew up with tales of “remember when” and “when I was little…” around the dinner table, many others—often children of immigrants—were told little to nothing about their family’s narrative before they were born.
Soledad O’Brien, whose father came from Australia and her mother from Cuba, says her parents both decidedly left the past behind. “We’ll just start anew,” she says was their prevailing attitude. Like my family, O’Brien’s didn’t talk about the past at all. “Repressing things is a very solid strategy!” she said with a laugh.
Of course, it’s a strategy for coping and, yes, beginning anew. But apart from fueling that fresh start, the decision to bury family history—so common among immigrants in the first half of the 20th century—does nothing to connect the next generation to their past.
O’Brien was a Season Three guest on Finding Your Roots, and she says that she derived great value from learning more about her family history. “As you’re trying to figure out yourself, these threads begin to matter more and more,” she said.
“At the time, I was feeling insecure as an entrepreneur,” O’Brien said; but recalling her family’s history of perseverance, and drawing from that history of strength, “felt heartening, and emotional. There is this story that I’m connected to.”
Those stories helped O’Brien “feel somehow rooted to a place.” The stories made her feel connected. “Even if you don’t know you have a gaping hole, you do,” O’Brien said.
Stories bring genealogy to life.
DNA drove the original idea for Gates’s previous genealogical series, African American Lives, which explored race, roots, and identity with guests including Oprah Winfrey, Ben Carson, and Chris Rock. Gates would watch his subjects stare at new genealogical documents; they would read the words, but as he says, it wasn’t the pages of data that moved them. “They broke down and cried over the stories,” he recalls.
And so it is the stories that take center stage in his current PBS series, Finding Your Roots, whose fourth season, currently in production, will air this fall (guests include Larry David, Bernie Sanders, Amy Shumer, Ted Danson, and Paul Rudd).
“Every society has a genealogy tradition,” Gates said at the Open Center event.
“You are, in part, the sum of your ancestors” Gates said in the Washington Post, and researching one’s background helps people figure out “how you became uniquely you.”
“What you get from a genealogist is a binder of documents; you don’t get stories,” Gates said. “You have to translate that stuff into stories, and I’m very proud to be able to do that.”
Often guests on Finding Your Roots hire the team of genealogists from the show to continue their family research privately. They want to flesh out their family trees even further—and to “meet” more family members...discover their stories.
What is revealed can be life-changing to the guests, Gates said.
His own most treasured family heirloom remains to this day the one that jump-started his interest in family history: a photograph of his great-great grandmother Jane Gates. “It’s precious to me.” That connection with his own roots—Gates says he passes by and looks at the photo every day in his home—“gives me solidity and stability. It makes me feel good.”
And maybe that’s the best part of sharing stories, after all: Stories make us feel good.
As Soledad O’Brien said, “Stories are everything.”
- There are plenty of reasons to share family stories, from raising resilient kids to helping understand oneself.
- No one will tell your life stories but you. Start small by saving family photos & preserving stories so you create a lasting, meaningful legacy, one step at a time.
- Interested in working with a personal historian who can interview you or a family member to elicit & shape your stories for a book? Let's chat.