You have a story to tell
Discover your own story by looking at the rituals and traditions in your life.
What’s your story?
Not your résumé, your genealogy or your Facebook page. Your story.
Jonathan Gottschall, MA ’96, PhD ’00, in his book, The Storytelling Animal, says, “A life story is a ‘personal myth’ about who we are deep down — where we came from, how we got this way, and what it all means.”
Your story can start, literally, at the beginning — your birth — or at a symbolic beginning — a trauma or triumph that has changed how you see yourself and the world around you.
“Our life stories are who we are. They are our identity. A life story is not, however, an objective account,” he says. Research has proven that human memory is flawed, so what you choose to remember, and how you remember it, may not always be the truth, but it is your truth.
Assistant Professor of Human Development Myra Sabir has spent two decades helping young, middle-aged and older people tell their stories as part of her research into adult development and aging.
In workshops, she leads them through a series of writing exercises that teach them how to isolate and resolve the parts of their past that cause an unhealthy amount of stress or anxiety.
“Life writing is mostly about unresolved experiences. You’re not going back to look at the good stuff,” she says, adding: “It’s painful, but one only has to do it one good time.”
The writing is private. But the results, she says, can be easy to see: better health, improved relationships and self-awareness. Integration of those individual benefits, in turn, can benefit the community because of a developmental phenomenon known as generativity.
Generativity is the need to make the world better for future generations, Sabir explains. It may be strongest around middle age, when empty nesters might look for a cause to nurture. They volunteer; they join boards, take up causes and pitch in on civic projects.
“The integrated person wants that involvement. Life writing serves the integration process and pushes people to a level of maturity that is all about helping the community.”
Elizabeth Tucker, professor of English, rhetoric and literature, also helps people understand their stories by looking at the folklore that shapes them.
Don’t limit folklore to fairy stories and legends. They are part of folklore, but so are religious ceremonies, children’s rhymes and recipes for rabbit stew.
Ethnicity, religion and certain occupations are particularly rich in folklore, which clarifies who we are and what we care about, she says.
“Folklore constitutes a crucial part of our identity and our heritage,” Tucker says. “Families preserve stories and customs for important reasons. They tell you who you are, where you come from and how you should behave.”
The essays in the New York State Folklife Reader, co-edited by Tucker and Ellen McHale, explore New York’s history by telling
stories of how New Yorkers live: how they worship and work, protest and play, make memorials and butter molds.
The traditions we maintain without thinking often turn out to be the ones that are most telling, if we only take the time to look and listen.
And that is how you begin to tell your story.