Prosilience #20: The Ancestors
Learning about resilience from family history and narratives
Genealogy is one of my hobbies; I’ve build a ridiculously large and sprawling family “thicket” (it’s not really a tree at this point). Along the way I’ve been fascinated—and sometimes horrified—to read about the various challenges faced by earlier generations, both in my own family and in the families of others around me. I thought I’d take some time to explore this intersection between family history1 and resilience.
To begin this exploration of resilience and ancestry, I first looked at some of the challenges that form themes in my own family history. I use the word “challenge” to describe the wide range of experiences and events that call on our resilience—our ability to maintain/regain/expand our well-being and effectiveness as we move through the world. These can be exciting, scary, opportunity-focused, traumatic, brief, extended, small, large, and everything in between.2
The First Circle: My Family
As I look back at the history of my own family, I see a mostly western European heritage. My ancestors emigrated from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and a few other countries in the 1700s and 1800s. Most of them came to the US to escape religious persecution—Quakers from England, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Swiss & German Mennonites—and settled in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Delaware/Maryland/Virginia. Many of them were pioneers who moved west and south as the country expanded. Some of the themes I have seen in their stories include:
Immigration—I imagine the experiences of people coming to a new country on ships from across the sea; traveling on wagons across rough terrain, building homes and communities, learning new languages, and carrying traditions and cultures into new lands; some came as indentured servants, exchanging the costs of their passage for several years of unpaid labor.
Conflict and War—I envision people choosing loyalties, fighting, and suffering deaths and losses in the American Revolution, Civil War, World Wars, and other conflicts. I picture the difficult experiences and conversations that took place as neighbors, friends, and families were torn apart by divided loyalties.
Enterprise—I am fascinated to look at the ways people applied their skills to make a living, taking up a range of professions including wheelwright, ship’s carpenter, preacher, farmer, teacher, and homemaker, and starting businesses and other forms of enterprise.
Health—I realize that not too many generations back, life expectancy was shorter and medical science was not as advanced; people also tended to marry very young; I see people having many children, losing children at young ages, dying in childbirth or of diseases that would be curable today. I also see epidemics—flu, typhoid, polio, and more—that passed through in waves.
Faith & Community—I understand that for most of my ancestors, life centered around their faith and religious community; it influenced where they lived, who they married, and how they lived their lives. It drove them to leave their homes to find places where they could worship freely. It also influenced their perspective on politics and issues such as slavery and women’s rights, led them to take on causes that were important to them, and inspired them to take on leadership roles in a wide range of organizations.
The Second Circle: My Extended Family
As I look a little farther out, I see my husband’s family, which is of eastern European Jewish descent. His family is much harder to trace, because so many records have been lost. His ancestors were part of a large wave of Jewish immigration during the mid to late 1800s/early 1900s. Many of them came first to New York. They were tailors, watchmakers, accountants, laborers, and business owners. All of the themes I mentioned above are present. The Enterprise theme was particularly strong—the early immigrants were often pursuing perceived economic and social opportunities in America—as was the Faith & Community theme, because of the close community bonds in the Jewish culture. There is at least one additional theme in his history, however:
Hatred and Genocide—although my ancestors faced religious persecution, it rarely rose to the level of the horrors faced by Jews in eastern Europe who were beset by increasing waves of anti-Semitism and violence, starting with pogroms—riots against Jews that often included rape, looting, and murder, and leading to the Holocaust, in which approximately six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime in Germany.
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The Third Circle: Family Intersections
As I look farther into the story, I see the people whose lives intersected with those of my ancestors. The same themes show up here as well, with a significant addition:
Enslavement—in the wills of some of my ancestors, I see names of enslaved people being left to other family members as property, indicating that I have slave owners in my family tree. I have not yet done extensive research in this area, but am learning about the work of descendants of enslaved ancestors who are seeking to learn more about them and the people who enslaved them; I hope to help where I can. I also have ancestors—particularly among the Quakers—who were active in the anti-slavery movement.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the themes that shape family histories, but rather an exploration of the ones that I have noticed in my own research and found particularly relevant to my own understanding of the world and the people around me. There are many others. For example, I am aware of stories about conflict between pioneers and Native Americans living in the Western and Southeastern US. I know that various family members felt led to take up political causes such as suffragism and temperance. I see children who were orphaned, girls who married in their early teens, often to much older men. So much more to learn and explore!
Questions to Consider: Think about the themes in your own family history. What challenges inspired your ancestors? What difficulties did they encounter? How has that shaped your view of yourself and the world around you? Are there blank spots in your family history? What would you like to learn more about?
From Challenges to Stories
There are challenges that seem fairly universal, and themes in these challenges that cut across time and place. Many people have experienced displacement, have journeyed in search of opportunities, have lost children to famine or disease, have built communities, have survived attacks, have ventured out into the world to pursue a dream. This can help us gain appreciation for the shared human experience and recognize that we are not alone.
And yet each story is unique. It’s not possible to fully understand another person’s experience, or to make broad statements about the human experience that are true for everyone. Time, place, and context shape the nature of the challenges each of us faces. Moving from challenges to stories is about these details. Where did they come from? Who were they with? How did they travel? What setbacks and obstacles did they encounter, and how did they move through them? Who did they meet along the way? What motivated them? What was the result of their efforts? These are the things that help us visualize resilience in action.
With this in mind, I offer some thoughts about how the lens of family history might be useful as we seek to strengthen our own resilience and support that of those we love, serve, and care about.
Intergenerational Trauma and Resilience
The trauma experienced when a person or group encounters one or more dramatically disruptive events can be passed along to successive generations, increasing the likelihood of substance abuse, mental health issues, anger, emotional dysregulation, and other negative outcomes. Research on intergenerational trauma shows a variety of mechanisms by which this happens, including effects on parenting style, impact on personal identity, and influences on physiology and genetic expression (epigenetics).
The influence of family can also take a more beneficial form. Intergenerational resilience describes the ways in which people and communities who have encountered difficult times and those who have experienced trauma are able to repair, grow, and pass down their perspectives and tools to help the next generation build their own capacity to recover and learn from challenges.3 One of the specific ways this happens is by sharing stories.
I was fascinated to learn of a study by researchers at Emory concluding that teens who knew more about their family history had “higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning.” Part of the reason for this is that it helps them create an image of themselves as part of a larger whole—a human in context.
As I dug around and looked for more information on this, one of the things I ran across was this article on tips for sharing family stories. I also found this article that introduces the idea of family narratives.4 One of the things I found particularly interesting is researcher Marshall Duke’s idea that every family has a story line that describes their history. According to Duke, these can take one of three shapes:
Ascending: “When we came to this country, we had nothing. We worked, started a business…your grandfather went to high school, your mother went to college, we bought land, built a house, and now we are well-respected in the community. We know you will build on this history to do even greater things.”
Descending: “We used to have it all…then we lost everything. Before we came to this country we had a beautiful home, a thriving business, and were surrounded by family. But we lost it all in the war. How can you recover from that? You go on. We had a family and made a business. Got involved in our community. But it will never be the same. And it could all fall apart again at any time.”
Oscillating: “We’ve sure had some ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandparents founded a private school. Your mother was elected to office. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once in jail. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
I’m sure you can guess which one is the most powerful in supporting resilience! Understanding that things rise and fall, that darkness and hope run in parallel paths, that others have moved beyond hard times, and that good times should be savored and appreciated, can all help individuals work through the complications of their own journeys.
Questions to Consider: Which of these stories best describes the way you see your own family history? Do you know people who have stories that follow the other two shapes? How might you enrich your understanding of the ups and downs in your own story? How might you help others reframe their stories to include a broader perspective of the oscillations in their own families? How might you create opportunities in your own family to explore stories to build a shared narrative that connects you?
I’ve found it exceptionally meaningful to see the ups and downs of my own family history. Among other things, I am blessed to have in my possession the journals of my great-grandmother, who describes life in Iowa in the late 1920s and goes on to tell of their daily life through the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond. I’m working on sharing them in a series of posts (with some comments and annotations) so my family and others can connect with this (oscillating!) story and perhaps be inspired to share their own.5
I also enjoy several shows on TV that explore the ancestral stories and histories of celebrities and others, and know that many others also resonate with them both for the universal lessons they contain and the particular stories they relate.
Along the way, I also found this organization, a nonprofit that helps connect homeless people with their family histories using research and DNA, and am aware of many genealogists who give generously of their time to help others learn more about their stories.
Of course our family histories do not define us. This is not a magical strategy for building resilience. Yet this process of finding themes, telling stories, sharing histories, and recognizing the oscillating cycles of life gives me hope. If we can work toward seeing ourselves, and helping others see themselves, as part of a larger human story, perhaps we can use the resulting insights to help one another as we move through life’s challenges.
How might you use this perspective on family, challenge, and intergenerational resilience in your own development? In helping the people you care about and the communities you serve? In making the world a more resilient place?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of the Prosilience newsletter! See you in two weeks.
When I use the term families here, I include not only families that are connected by birth, but the various individuals and communities in which we have gathered our own sense of self and our understanding of who we are and where we came from.
If you’re not familiar with my perspective on the range of challenges that call on our resilience, take a few minutes to read this post that describes the Challenge Map model.
Here’s an interesting research article that explores cross-generational resilience in American Indian and Alaska Native populations.