A number of years ago, the coincidence of taking classes in Family Systems Theory and Old Testament Theology at the same time caused me to posit that every family has an “Exodus story” as a part of its history and self-understanding. Well, “history” almost certainly; how important it is to forming a family’s (and individual’s) “self-understanding” is an idea that I want to pursue with this essay.
Although I don’t claim to speak for my Jewish cousins, it is accurate – even an understatement – to say that the biblical people of Israel, and the Jews of today, find an important sense of who they are in the Old Testament account of the Exodus. And, more than just a sentimental look-backward to days of old, this central and centering story informs not only their identity but their behavior and ethics as well. Beyond simply remembering the time of slavery in Egypt and being grateful for liberation, the story reminds them, among other things, that they “are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” So essential is the Exodus – and the ensuing epic of the formation of Jewish community – to the life and memory of this people that they are charged, through Moses, to celebrate and relive these events for “generations to come,” and to “talk about this when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up,” and to “impress it upon your children.” Tell the story.
The Jews offer a renowned example, but every “people” has some kind of formative story of sojourn, tumult, liberation, discovery, renewal, or all of these. And so do all families. It is the proposal of this theory that hearing these stories is a healthy, even vital, part of a child’s development, and it is the sometimes enjoyable, sometimes painful responsibility of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to tell them.
Although these ideas occurred to me as I was learning about Family Systems and studying the Old Testament, the approach I am presenting here is certainly not original with me. Bruce Feiler, in a recent New York Times essay, “The Stories That Bind Us” (adapted from his new book, “The Secrets of Happy Families”), convincingly outlines the importance of having a “strong family narrative.”
Feiler cites the clear research findings of Emory University psychologists Marshall and Sarah Duke and others which demonstrate that “children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.” This isn’t a matter of knowing arcana like which county in Ireland one’s great-great-grandmother came from (although that knowledge may have it’s own interesting value, as I’ll discuss below), but the ability to answer such questions as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth? The “Do You Know?” scale, reports Feiler, “turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness,” whether the trauma was as minor as a skinned knee or as major as reacting to the attacks of 9-11.
When asked why this might be, Dr. Duke asserted that, “The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
This sense of family does not mean that the “strong family narrative” must be all good news. Among different kinds of possible accounts, 1) “We had nothing and now we’re on top of the world;” 2) “We had it all and we lost everything…;” psychologists report that the “oscillating family narrative” is the most healthful: 3) “Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in this family, but no matter what, we stuck together….”
I was struck by this summary statement in Feiler’s article: “When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.”
Telling the whole story – the ups and the downs – also helps to counter one of the most potentially destructive elements in a child’s development: the family secret. Although it may not be crystal clear at what age a child ought to be told about mom’s earlier divorce or grandpa’s alcoholism, child psychologists are pretty much united in the understanding that children need to be informed, in an age-appropriate manner, of even these difficult issues. (As a practical matter, the truth “will out” anyway.)
In addition to the more immediate family knowledge in Dr. Duke’s “Do You Know?” scale, I believe a case can also be made for the value of growing up with an understanding of the geographic or geo-political travels of one’s earlier ancestors – one’s own “Exodus story.”
Of course an Exodus story may have to do with physical travel from one place to another. It may also have to do with wandering in the wilderness of an illness or an economic crisis or a family estrangement. The foundational exodus/wandering in a family’s history may have happened two centuries ago or ten years ago. Every family on earth (I am bold to say) has a geographical exodus some time (even if a long time) in its past. Almost as many families have the more figurative sort of wilderness wandering. It’s good to know – and to tell – both kinds of stories. They are (at least as much as what we majored in in college or what our occupation is) stories of who we are.
I grew up fascinated with my parents’ stories of “the olden days.” But I find that as an adult the sojourns of my family and my extended family continue to fascinate, enlighten, and form me. I will no doubt write of some of these at another time. For now, I will simply name four stories in our family journey that I am glad to know (and that still get to me), even though they are not all borne out of glad tidings: 1) My father’s experience – as a very young man – of a near-fatal burst brain aneurism and his subsequent slow but grateful recovery. 2)The occasion of my Great-Uncle Gus Jorgensen, sheriff of Martin County, Minnesota, being gunned down by a desperado in 1931 (that’s how I liked to tell it as a kid), fifteen years before I was born. 3) My visit with Caryl to her great-grandfather’s rocky farm in the mountains above Norway’s Sognefjord – a sublimely beautiful locale that, in 1878, offered no choice but exodus. 4) The death of Caryl’s Aunt Ellnora, who, in 1908, died at age eighteen (a year before Caryl’s dad was born) while enrolled as a student at St. Olaf College – and the horse-and-wagon journey her parents made to bring her body home.
I will tell these and more stories to my grandkids. I will be sure to embellish the story of Sheriff Gus and the Desperado.
What is your family’s Exodus story?
All quotes, and some of the ideas in this essay, are from "The Stories That Bind Us," by Bruce Feiler, New York Times, March 15, 2013.
The Exodus account can be read in the book of Exodus, chapter 12.