During these times of uncertainty, we are all looking for the courage, clues, and inspiration to keep on keeping on. The stories we tell ourselves about the world are more powerful than ever. We are searching, seeking stories that can touch us, move us, and make us feel a little better. We all have a primal need for belonging in our lives and that connection is built around our stories.
Stories of identity—who we are and where we have come from—are the most compelling harbingers of all. Our family’s stories—why our grandparents chose to leave their countries of origin, snippets of how our parents met, our mother’s bedtime stories, tales of our ancestors’ achievements whether real, embellished, or outright imaginary, are the stuff of who we are. They are the key to exploring what life is all about and they teach us that people from our past shape our present. Family stories connect the past and present to the future.
Throughout history, these stories have been passed down through the art of storytelling. Experts say when we can reminisce about events from the past and retell stories from our ancestors' lives we can gain greater self-esteem, the ability to be introspective during life’s challenges, and gain increased emotional understanding.
Now, more than ever, many of us are looking to our ancestors to anchor and guide us through the weeks, months, and possibly years ahead. Here are four reasons why it is more important than ever to unlock your family stories and uncover our true connections:
1. To keep the faith: We look to our ancestors for enlightenment, for spiritual inspiration to help guide us where we are going. At a crucial time in our world, when we are becoming increasingly stressed, we yearn to travel in our minds and hearts into the lives of our ancestors and physically to their places of origin. To have come from a specific place, no matter how long ago, is to be connected to a much more meaningful self-narrative.
Consider the experience of Don Grossnickle. For more than 10 years, he has dedicated his life to helping high school football players who have been struck down by paralyzing spinal cord injuries navigate the huge challenges they and their families face as they try to move on in life with their serious injuries long after the game is over. As co-founder of Gridiron Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting awareness and prevention of catastrophic injuries to high school student athletes, and a deacon in the Catholic Church, Grossnickle preaches the power of grit and resilience to get through life’s toughest times and to move forward.
His life purpose, he says, was inspired by his Swedish grandmother, Maja. Maja was his mentor and the woman he aspired to emulate, and he had always been in awe of the stories she told about coming to America and surviving her husband’s sudden death and the Great Depression. For Grossnickle, his grandmother epitomized the lessons in perseverance he was trying to inspire the athletes with.
Through his research, he discovered his grandmother’s steamer trunk that she had brought with her from Sweden as an immigrant to America in 1922. Inside, he found photos, archives, and a treasure trove of family history.
“My grandmother beautifully portrayed how our ancestors and their inspirational and sometimes imperfect stories contribute to the future. With twenty-twenty hindsight as a gift, it is our job to share their legacy with others. Grandma Maja first inspired me to become a teacher. With advanced degrees, I wrote articles and books and spoke about the problem of high school dropout rates. Grandma Maja’s legacy inspires my work today.”
2. To gain empathy for others. While trying out two of the most popular DNA testing services—Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com—all Carole Hines wanted to know was why her brother was so tall, so blond, and so strikingly opposite looking compared to her own five-foot-three, black-haired self. The questions started at a young age, when she intuitively knew that “something made me really different from my brother and sister.” That simple knowing would take Hines, sixty-nine, who lives with her wife, Mavis, in both San Francisco and New York City, on a long journey of race and ethnicity.
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Fast-forward to 2017, when Hines took her DNA test. She discovered she was mostly Latino, with traces of Native American, Ashkenazi Jewish, and Basque.
The finding was freeing, says Hines.
Throughout her life, Hines says she remembers marching to a different drummer than her siblings and family members. Her intellectual bent and passion to crusade for people who cannot speak up for themselves were mainstays.
“I’ve never understood racism or prejudice and anything that diminishes people because of their race or ethnicity or how they live. Now I better understand what I instinctively knew in my pores, that I was of a different color, that I was a little bit different. Maybe I feel so strongly because I was fighting unconsciously for myself.”
Taneya Koonce, the associate director of research for the Center for Knowledge Management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, agrees.
“I knew my ancestors must have been slaves, I’d read about what that must have been like in history books, but when I learned I had an ancestor who escaped all of that, it really put the background of what exists in so many African Americans’ homes in context for me,” she says. “I went from living in a family that just never talked about any of this, except to occasionally say our relatives were sharecroppers, to really feeling what it must have been like.
“I think learning about family history brings people together and helps us better understand the political and cultural climate that inspired our own lives. I think it gives us a better understanding of what we think are our differences. Instead of dividing us, they can help unite us. We all can really appreciate what our families have gone through and take these lessons of perseverance and put them into play in our own lives.”
3. To gain a greater understanding of yourself: Delving into family stories can lead to self-discovery and a broader sense of connection. Some say it can be healing. “Research on family history argue it performs the task of anchoring a sense of ‘self’ through tracing ancestral connection and cultural belonging, seeing it as a form of storied ‘identity‐work,’” according to a study by the University of Manchester’s Wendy Bottero.
Kristine (Kearney) Celorio has experienced a whirlwind of adventures during the last two years. Married to Alejandro Celorio, a Mexican diplomat to the United States, and the mother of two young children—Alex, seven, and Audrey, four—Celorio and her family moved to Mexico City from Washington, DC, in 2018.
Celorio had grown up with adoptive parents in a San Francisco suburb but decided to research her biological parents.
“Ultimately, finding my biological father has filled a small gap in my understanding of who I am,” says Celorio. “I feel kind of relieved now that the picture is more complete. Suddenly, there are no more questions. For so many years, I had all those questions. Now, I just know a little bit more about me. But I am still who I was before, someone who was raised in an incredibly happy family. It’s just that now I know more about this other piece that is part of my life.”
4. To inspire and empower self-discovery: Who am I? Where do I come from? And where am I going? Those were the questions the always-inquisitive Caroline Guntur (then Caroline Nilsson) peppered her parents with from an early age on.
Born in Sweden, Guntur was an only child. She lost her maternal grandparents during her childhood. Her paternal grandparents were not in her life, either. Through her research, she uncovered her family went all the way back to the Vikings.
“I found story after story about this amazing adventurer, my relative, and it changed my whole attitude toward life,” she says. “I went from being insecure to understanding that I was really standing on the shoulders of some utterly amazing people. Newfound confidence and a sense of adventure propelled me forward like never before, and because of this, I dared to emigrate to the U.S. by myself at age eighteen with a few dollars and a backpack.”
She adds: “My family’s story was a gift to me and had a profound effect. Seeing that they went all the way back to the Vikings and that there was so much courage and adventure in their lives helped me explore and own that part of myself. If we do not write our stories, they will get lost. You will discover something that will change your life in one way or another. I promise it will rock your world in a positive way. If more of us explored our histories and learned about the struggles people faced and overcame, I think we would have a more tolerant world.”
Why tell our stories now? Bottom line: The timing for us to tell our stories is critical. Many first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants are more intricately connected to their family’s roots, but younger generations are farther removed from the ancestral ties. They need the tools and the inspiration to know that the journey to the past can be closer than it seems.
In our ever-changing world, there is no substitute for a legacy of family stories to provide direction, a sense of identity, and to serve as a reminder of the grit and inspiration needed to move ahead. When we tell our family stories, we can find compassion in the lives and circumstances of the ones who came before us and to realize how they have helped shape our own lives. Especially now, we can hold on to them and forge ahead in the face of uncertainty and challenge.