by Laura Roselle
Research on the structure of family stories has shown that telling a story that has ups and downs is important. In addition, ending your stories with a positive event or a lesson for the future can have a positive effect on your listeners. So, stories should have ups and downs… and ups.
Let me tell you a story from my family and you will see what I mean. Then I’ll give you an activity to try yourself.
When I was young, my dad would tell me how my great grandfather, Frank Mican, and his family lost everything. Everything. I remember very well hearing this story, sensing my father’s pain. I felt it too.
As a young boy Frank and his parents came from Bohemia in 1880. He was, and would be, the only surviving child in the family. His parents worked hard and built a successful life.
Frank married Elizabeth Cuchna whose family was also from Bohemia. In fact, she was born on the ship coming to the U.S. Together they had a large family, worked hard and eventually owned land in New Jersey. Frank valued education, served in local government, and helped build schools in their small town.
This is what they looked like in 1914. Frank is in the back row on the right. You see his wife Elizabeth next to him and his parents in the left of the back row. My grandmother is the second little girl from the left.
But, as the story goes, Frank Mican lost everything in the Depression in the 1930s in the United States.* “He went from serving on the school board or city council and having his name on the cornerstone of one of the schools built in the 1920s to being given a job as the janitor in that school.”
But let’s look at this story. It goes from one about successful immigrants to a story of losing everything. The first message I understood when I was young was that this fall led to incredible bitterness in the family. The second message was that a trauma could destroy a family.
Do you see what happened here? The way I looked at this loss was incredibly disempowering. The loss was seen as destroying the family, as driving a wedge between people, as breaking bonds and the loss of love.
That was the story I had in my head.
But then I read what researchers had to say about stories that can make a difference. I looked for more and changed the story in my mind.
Here’s my new story: “In spite of the significant and traumatic losses, Frank Mican was given a job so that he could provide for his family. Someone thought enough of him to give him that job. That means there were people who respected him. In addition, Frank worked hard to provide for his family who loved him. He did what he had to do and that shows incredible strength. The family survived and many thrived through the generations following Frank Mican."
To see those who thrived I only have to look at my own father whom I love very much.
My dad is the grandson of Frank Mican. In the 1930s, during the Depression, my dad lived in a cold water flat in Paterson, NJ. His father worked at WPA jobs and his mother got TB and was sent to a sanatorium for a year. My father lived with neighbors for the year she was gone. Those neighbors, Edward and Olga Jose, cared for him and nurtured him. He worked hard in school, and years after he lived with them this couple helped him get a scholarship for college. My dad eventually became a phenomenal physician who helps people, still working as a doctor past his 90th birthday. My dad is inspiring. He took education seriously (like Frank his grandfather) and became someone who saves lives. I also find Edward and Olga Jose inspiring. They were generous ones who helped change the life of my father.
When things are difficult, the lessons I take from these facts are:
“Look for the ones who get back up after they have been knocked down.”
"Look for the generous ones."
Now I have a story that acknowledges the negative, but it also looks for positive lessons and values. This story is a story that can make a difference.
My children and my grandchildren will know this story.
So now it’s your turn.
Here's an activity for you to try:
First, write down some facts about your family that are associated with a story that focuses on the negative or the disappointing.
Then write down a different story. Think about how the situation described might have made someone stronger, given someone a chance, taught a lesson for the future, or prepared the ground for something unexpected.
Let me add a final note about this kind of exercise. Be gentle with yourself when looking back at and confronting difficult stories. You cannot go back and change things that happened. You may not be able to find much good in troubling events. What you can do, however, if you are ready, is to see what lessons you can take from these stories, and understand that you can write a new story. If you are not ready, leave it. And always be prepared to seek help from a professional counselor or physician if the feelings are just too much.
Dr. Elaine Reese,** among other researchers, shows that stories that contain both ups and downs, and stories that end with a lesson or resolution can have a positive effect on those who hear the stories. This story structure recognizes that bad or negative things can happen, but it also discusses how positive events can follow or that important lessons can be learned. This gives your listener a view of a world where things can turn around.
Stories of ups and downs... and ups lead to more resilient people. These types of stories tell us that the world is, and has been, full of highs and lows. Things can change over time. Disappointments can teach lessons. And we can try to get up again when things go wrong.
* I'll leave for another day what I found out much later about how truthful the story was.
**Reese, Elaine. Tell me a story: Sharing stories to enrich your child's world. OUP USA, 2013.