Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino said, “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”
I love this quote for many reasons, and it carries new weight for me being here in Korea where one’s ancestors are a prominent part of life. They are honored at various times throughout the year and the story or history of a family is one that carries much weight. For better or worse, the past is always present and ghosts abound. Turns out, it may indeed be for the better.
There was a recent article in the New York Times, The Stories That Bind Us. It’s a fascinating read about recent research that suggests that there is a direct correlation between a child’s resilience, self-esteem, and sense of control and how much they know about their family’s story. The article says:
“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”
The key may be that by telling stories and honoring even the silliest of traditions, we give our children a feeling of belonging to something much bigger than themselves, something enduring that has weathered life’s storms. This translates into confidence that they too will be able to overcome challenges and carry on.
As a child I was fascinated with my family history. I have long been the keeper of old photographs and family memorabilia. My great-grandmother’s tattered and worn recipe book is one of my prized possessions. I was always the one peppering my parents with questions about their grandparents and where they spent their summer holidays and I am grateful that they so willingly obliged. Reading and reflecting on this article helped me to name what it is that I get from these stories and these items and it is indeed a sense of belonging as well as knowledge that those who have come before me have both thrived and struggled as I have and as my son will and so on and so on.
Not having been raised in a culture where the honoring and recognizing of ancestors is so integral to family life, I’ve struggled at times to wrap my brain around it since we’ve been here in Korea. While I very much admire the honor and respect that is paid to one’s elders, I’ve at times seen it as yet another Confucian principle that puts immense pressure on the youngest of the generations to please and appease the older (and ghost) generations. The Western world seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, where older people tend to be discarded when they are no longer economically valuable and where very little time and attention is paid to the past and those that came before.
Surely there is a middle ground. Can enlightened homes be homes where the family narrative is strong and present without allowing it to define the future? If you think about it, knowing where we’re coming from is the only smart way to set a course to move forward. What if we inadvertently end up where we started because we didn’t know where we’d already been? Yes, connection to the past is essential, perhaps the best way to honor our ancestors, the ghosts in our walls, is to use the confidence their stories give us to boldly move forward.
Do you feel that you have provided a strong narrative for your children? The NYT article recommended that perhaps families develop a mission statement similar to the ones many companies use to identify their core values. What would your family’s mission statement be?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Ms. V. of South Korea.
Photo credit to Paul Bailey. This picture has a creative commons attribute license.