By Daniel Hubbard | September 9, 2009
Human beings tell stories. We can’t help it. That is how we order our world—in narratives.
We tell stories about ourselves, our family and our friends. Some stories lose their interest after days, months or years while others become favorites we tell our whole lives. It is those that become the stories children hear over and over at the dinner table and family get-togethers. Once they become our children’s stories as well, they may be passed on for generations. What were once just one person’s stories become our family stories. Along the way they might merge with other stories, lose exactness, gain details they never had or replace one set of ancestors with another.
Our ancestral stories may be perfectly true or outright lies but either way, after generations of repetition, there must be something in them worth passing down. The decision that an old story is worthy of preservation has already been made. To properly protect and conserve those stories, we need to understand what they are and know that stories often have a deeper meaning than what we first detect.
Storytelling, creating narratives, is one of our minds’ basic functions. We do it in all facets of our lives. Without the simplifications of stories we would drown in details and be frozen in the face of causal links too complex to grasp—instead we look for patterns, for stories, we already know, or try to form new ones. We create rules-of-thumb and shortcuts—both are compressed forms of stories. Yet storytelling has its costs. The process of creating narrative by its very nature simplifies what has happened, so it misses or omits details. It may imply causes that have little to do with the emergence of their purported effects.
We tell many kinds of stories. Some are meant only to entertain. Others are meant to preserve a sequence or pattern of events. Still others are meant to teach, to convey information, to preserve ways of doing things and provide ways of working through problems. They allow us to do all this without returning each time to first principles. A fable is not just a story about talking foxes or persistent tortoises. It is clearly and transparently a story with a meaning other than the simple narrative.
Folktales are famous for being packed with forgotten and half-disguised symbolism. Of all the stories we tell with an undercurrent of meaning, most, like the folktale, bury it much deeper than a simple fable. By the time we progress to myth, the buried meaning is both more complex and more profound. It may convey some aspect of the essence of what it means to be human, no longer representing one occurrence but folding together centuries of experiences.
Our family stories often survive because, in the process of being retold, they were able to make that transition from simple narrative to something more meaningful. They become our personal folktales and our pedigree of myth.
Research may show these stories to be based on fact or reveal them to be less than trustworthy. Yet factual or not, they are, in some sense, true. They are truly part of our past because they have been believed. They are true because they are meaningful in the deepest sense of that word. If we think we must suppress a story simply because we find it in error, then we make a second error. One must preserve the newly uncovered fact but also preserve the meaning that has been passed down for so long.
Other times when we uncover something new, the opposite begins to happen. Instead of being tempted to stamp out an old story, we find a new story starting to emerge. When I look back upon my ancestors, like any storyteller, I feel the urge to look for meaning in what I’ve found. In only the rarest of cases is there significance already clearly present in the past, just waiting to be distilled. Our ancestors rarely hand us archetypes with which to work. Yet, when they do, what a wondrous thing it is. What a privilege it is to be able to give the next generation of storytellers something to hone, at once old and new.
Family historians should not just gather facts and make them available to others with precise citations but also preserve and polish the stories that we are told. When what we learn becomes a new story, there is a obligation to nurture it. We must deal with three things at once—facts, narratives and meaning. Our facts coalesce into narratives and our narratives take on meaning. The science of family history is to anchor our past in those facts. The art of family history is to respect all three.Twitter It!