When Family Stories Don't Help, and When They Do

I was driving to work on Monday, thinking about the past. I tend to do that a lot–partly, it’s a function of my personality type. Enneagram Fours are the Walter Mitty’s of the personality world. We have vivid imaginations, and this rich inner life that we tend to get lost in like Alice chasing white rabbits through Wonderland.  We also have a lot of imaginary conversations with people.  Once again, I was mentally telling an old family story to myself.  But fortunately, I caught myself pretty quickly, and gave myself a mental time out.

Imaginary stories aren’t helpful when they become more compelling to us than the plot of our real lives.  Imaginary conversations are less benign when they allows us to distract ourselves from having difficult and necessary real conversations.  Digging into the stories of your childhood can give you some insight into why you are the person you are.  Endlessly repeating them can become a way to avoid figuring out who it is you want to become.

Sunday, however, I had an opportunity to experience how family stories can be helpful.

My son and nephews had an accident with my dad’s golf cart.  The smallest boy got a cut above his eye that, while not serious, required a trip to the emergency room and a few stitches.  His older brother, age 7, was distraught, and my son, who had been driving the cart, was guilty.

So I told them about the time I almost killed my sister (my nephews’ mom).

I was between two and three years old, and my younger sister was an infant rolling around in one of those walkers that society has since deemed too hazardous to continue producing.   Society is probably right about that one, because I left the basement door open and my sister went tumbling, walker and all, down the steps.  To the unfinished concrete floor below.

Babies, as it turns out, really do bounce well.

Like my younger nephew, she had to go get stitches, but was otherwise fine.  Like my older nephew, I was scared to death.   Like my son, I felt awful–accident or not.

A friend of mine has a husband in the hospital.  He went in for a simple surgery, a mistake was made, and things got very grave for a while.  He’s mending now, but his recovery has been very slow.  Another friend shared a similar story about her husband’s coworker who also went in for a simple procedure where things went awry, but eventually fully recovered.

Sharing these stories is helpful.  If you’re in the scary middle of a story, it helps to get a picture of it from the “after it’s all over and ends okay” perspective.   It provides hope, and a future point to anchor yourself when things get chaotic.

One of the things I miss most since my mom and grandparents have all passed is sitting around sharing the same familiar family stories.  I think maybe our family got out of the habit of telling our stories, because in the first few years after Mom’s passing especially, it was just too painful.  But now, I think it hurts more to miss the stories and to feel unanchored in history.  We need to reconnect the plot between our family’s generations.

Confessing to my nephew that I nearly killed his mom seems as good a place to start as any.


  1. Kat

    In that case, I’d say focus on the wider story–that you’ve survived and thrived as an adult. It’s a story that you’re still in, after all. Fat lady has not sung, and whatnot.


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