Why Write About Your Family’s Past?


It’s inevitable. The family is together and the phones are there too, if not physically then as a thought in the back of everyone’s mind, “Am I missing something on… Snapchat, text, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, email?” Often our digital age (and now COVID) is cited as the cause for the widespread anxiety and despair of our children’s generation. Many parents are lost in despair too, because we know that something is missing in our family’s lives. 


And it’s a nagging feeling we have, one that arises out of the human connections we experienced in our analog days, a time when, among other things, we had long conversations on the phone, wrote letters to family members, and kept journals and notebooks of thoughts and experiences. Maybe dropping these meaning-making activities is where we went wrong. 




The antidote for this digital despair is the meaning that is found by digging into our relationships and thoughts through very simple acts like writing letters, having conversations, and writing in a journal. To paraphrase psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, despair happens when we lack meaning to overcome suffering. And Frankl knew about suffering; he lost his mother, father, brother, and pregnant wife in the Holocaust and lived for years working hard labor, surrounded by death, without enough food or clothing. But his book Man’s Search for Meaning, often cited as one of the 10 most influential books, selling over 10 million copies, is both a testament and a roadmap for using connection and meaning to build a better life. 


How can we take Frankl’s message and bring it into our own lives? How can our kids, the next generation of our families, make meaning in their lives? We can show them the way, but do we even know how in our modern, digital world?


We used to know how. We regularly had conversations and engaged in reflective writing in journals and letters. These low-budget, leisure activities provided an opportunity to consciously respond to our experiences and find meaning in them, both the good times and bad. It strengthened us and our families just as it has over time throughout many generations. 


By spending some of our leisure time in these meaning-making analog activities, we lead our children to do the same. Cynics may say that’s just nostalgia, but the voice of hope knows that it takes more than courage, it takes some chutzpah, to give it a try.


Write Your Family’s Story

The gift of a lifetime in just a few weeks!

CONVERSATIONS, LETTERS, AND JOURNALS: What are we talking about here?


Journaling is a kind of expressive writing that enables you to get thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto a page so that you can observe and understand them. Freedom of thought is the goal and there’s no intended audience except yourself. Writer, scientist, and entrepreneur Paul Graham recently wrote, “Writing about something, even something you know well, usually shows you that you didn’t know it as well as you thought.” To know what you think, you have to put thoughts into words, whether in a physical notebook with pen and paper or in a document on a computer. 


In the days before therapy was widely available, people of all ages and stages used their journals and diaries to process their lives — from women in ancient Japan to Leonardo da Vinci to Anne Frank. And it continues today, people of all walks of life, including performers like Emma Watson and Lady Gaga, are using journals to enhance their understanding of life. 


Personal letter-writing is another vehicle for meaning where you write down your thoughts and feelings, but in a way that is purposeful — to share reflections about life, ask advice, or provide comfort. Some letters are one-way communications while others elicit a response and can turn into an asynchronous dialogue that takes place over time. Today, letters are delivered physically and electronically, but for most of human history, hand-written letters were the only way families could stay in touch when physically apart. As a result, letter-writing was a regular part of life that provided an opportunity to communicate with the people who mattered to you. 


Conversations are people in dialogue, listening and responding to each other, exchanging thoughts, ideas, and experiences, whether in the same room, on the phone, or (these days) by video. We’ve been having conversations so long that scientists can’t agree on when we started. As for the purpose, there are many, but writer and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks (a prolific journal-keeper) said it best, “We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”




1- Improved Physical and Emotional Health 


Science has validated what feels like common sense — having conversations has a positive impact on our health. While there are still debates about whether small-talk is just as beneficial as substantive conversations, conversation is essential to well-being. And at Emory University’s Family Narratives Lab, scientists have made important discoveries about the kinds of conversations that can lead to resilience and well-being in children.  


Researchers have also studied the impact of expressive writing (like journaling and letter-writing) over the past few decades. Hundreds of studies have yielded ample evidence of the health benefits of expressive writing. Physical benefits include lower blood pressure; improved lung, liver, and immune-system functioning; reduced impact of mood disorders; decreased symptoms among cancer patients; faster return to health after heart attacks; and even overall happiness


2- Huge Return on the Investment of Time, Money, and Effort 


For the price of a notebook, pen, stationery, and postage you are on your way. You don’t need any special training or talent to have a conversation, keep a journal, or write a letter. In fact, the goal when writing is to write like you speak so you can capture a sense of who you are in each sentence. If you want to have a conversation, you’ll have to coordinate with someone, but there’s no need to coordinate with anyone to express your thoughts in writing; write whenever the time is right for you, whether that be late at night, in the early morning hours, or somewhere in between. 


And while there’s a cost of some of your leisure time, the return on this investment is exponential because you gain what all of us desire: a deeper connection to the people who matter most in your life, including yourself. No promises, but letter-writing could even result in a Super Bowl win


3-Strengthens Your Family Through the Generations 


No doubt, finding facts about your family on ancestry.com is both amazing and useful. But talk to anyone who has a journal or meaningful letter written by a parent or grandparent and you’d think they had a pot of gold. These writings are tangible, sometimes in the unique handwriting of the author, and can be held and read and then re-read time and time again. These writings have the power to connect us to the voices of our past in a way that is different than the “facts” do. Our family members come alive on the page as we hear their voices, feel their feelings, and experience through their eyes their particular moments in history. Their lives become intertwined with ours. Connecting this way to our past provides an anchor of rootedness in our present and helps us know who we are. 


We can create purposeful writings like this for our kids. The journals, letters, and other writings we create today will be the legacy treasures of the future. And with our digital capabilities, they can stay alive in our families longer than before.  


Conversations provide us with a way to pass along a family oral history, to pass along the family lore. And while we can’t always remember every detail of these conversations, there is something intangible that becomes part of us when we hear them. In a sense, they create a part of who we are and of who we become. They provide guideposts for choices we make throughout our lives. These are the stories that are written in our identity, that can be passed along to our children if not through the stories of those who came before us, then through our own story that we live.


Get started now with these 3 Tiny Steps!


Write Your Family’s Story

The gift of a lifetime in just a few weeks!


Photo courtesy of Gratisography.

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