Burning of Library of Alexandria, 48 BC – Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Throughout our lives, we collect countless lessons. Some are simple, like never put your hand on a hot stove, and always put the car in park before you get out. Other lessons are deeper and messier—it’s these that teach us to overcome obstacles, stay true to ourselves, take more risks, transform suffering into strength, and be kind.
Lest it be lost in the fires of life, we pass on our wisdom through our stories—and how we tell them matters.
In the Journal of Aging Studies, researchers reviewed the stories older people tell about their lives and found that all participants in their study had experienced challenges such as a death of a child, divorce, or illness. However, certain participants framed their stories in ways that showed greater levels of openness and confidence about future adversity. In short, these elders were more resilient, which was both a cause and effect of the way they framed the stories of their lives.
We all have stories, and we get to decide how and when to tell them. As one of our clients says, “My mind is like a library and I add more and more to it all the time.” He’s working on a book to preserve his legacy. He’s sharing his hard-won wisdom to ensure that his “older mind perspective”—his library—doesn’t burn to the ground.
Everything we know, everything we have learned from our predecessors, is at risk if we don’t properly gather and transfer it. In the workplace, when a longtime employee retires or relocates, the team loses institutional memory—the accumulated set of facts, traditions, values, systems, and processes that makes up an organization. So, too, is the case with the knowledge and memory within families.
Maybe Aunt Anita, rest her soul, was the only one who knew that Grandpa used to give $1 to the homeless man on the street every day on his way to work. Or maybe your mom is the only one who remembers that, when you were four years old, you started bandaging up your stuffed animals with tube socks, and now you’re a veterinarian. Wouldn’t you want to know that?
These kinds of stories are at risk of being lost if we don’t recognize the wealth of information those around us have to offer. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande argues that new technologies and forms of communication have eroded the respect once commanded by elders. “In the past, surviving into old age was uncommon, and those who did survive served a special purpose as guardians of tradition, knowledge, and history.” In the age of the iPhone, our elders no longer have an exclusive hold on certain kinds of knowledge.
We now tend to think that whatever we need to know can be found online. We have so much information at our fingertips, but it’s not all meaningful or relevant to us. Just try this: pick up your smartphone and say, “OK, Google… how did my parents meet?” or “Hey, Siri… why did my ancestors settle in Chicago?”
We’ll save you the time. The results return a list of online discussion forums and various articles about Dutch, Irish, German, and Polish immigration. Internet searches can give us directions to the best local deli, but only the people who have been put through the mill—and come out the other side—can give us direction in life.
Stories help us peer into the past and make pathways into the future. Guard against memory loss by building a fireproof library to house the volumes of your knowledge and the stories of your life. Build your library now, before it’s too late.