Years ago, when I thought my job included teaching humility, I used to ask the students in my freshman composition classes to write an essay describing “happiness.” No one ever successfully completed that assignment. I didn’t expect success. It was a set-up that allowed me to expose the hazards of writing in cliché. Of course, while my students stumbled over cliches (a small matter) I routinely missed the deeper issue of why so many of us find it so difficult to describe the thing we all say that we want.
Family stories are similar in that we seldom question them. Seldom push beyond the surface. Never mind that we talk in stories all the time—over dinner, at work, on the phone, with friends, with strangers . . .. We seem to regard stories as “just stories,” the way we seem to think happiness is just happiness. We’ll know it when we find it.
Of course, family stories get shrugged off, not only because they’re “just stories,” but because they’re the same old stories. We think we know them. That is, until we ask “Why that story?” “Why that story told that way?” and “What else is the story saying?” It’s an exercise I recommend, no matter what you think your story is. It’ll change your life because . . .
Hard questions don’t have answers. They have stories.