A March 2013 New York Times tells about the studies of two child psychologists who report that people “who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.” The article tells how researchers asked young test subjects 20 questions about what they knew about their families – Did they know where their parents met? Did they know the story of their birth? – and then conducted psychological tests, including a follow-up two months later immediately after the terror attacks of September 11 had inflicted the same trauma on all their subjects.
Their study strongly suggested that those who knew the most about their own family background were more resilient in facing life’s challenges, and felt more strongly in control of their own lives even in the face of something, like September 11, over which they obviously had no control. According to the psychologists, that ability to cope comes from the “sense of being part of a larger family.”
Their work also identified three kinds of “family narratives”:
Ascending family narrative: “When we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked [and succeeded].”
Descending family narrative: “We used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
Oscillating family narrative: “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. … but no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
Yesterday James Goldberg – he of the Armenian Exodus exhibit and Dutch potatoes video on history.lds.org – pointed out this article to several colleagues and got us thinking about how this idea could apply to the telling of Church history. The idea has intrigued me ever since, to the point where I lay awake much of the night thinking about it.
Church history certainly has been and is told as an ascending narrative: “Line upon line, precept on precept”; “the Church is growing by leaps and bounds”; “look at how temples are multiplying”; “we were a persecuted minority in the 19th century, and look at our success today” – these are all themes of a constantly upward-trending Church history. This is the history of enthusiastic Conference statistical reports, 24th of July celebrations, and many manuals and other official sources.
But Church history has also been told as a descending narrative: “Mormon women used to have this, this and this; now all that has been taken away”; “we used to have really interesting lessons/magazines; now look what Correlation has done to us”; “Joseph Smith may have been a prophet, but nobody since then has had the same gift” – these are all themes of a history fallen from an idyllic, probably mythic past. It’s what we always hear from the disaffected, and occasionally from those of us who are not disaffected (are we “affected Mormons”?) but who sometimes feel dissatisfied about this or that.
Do we have an oscillating Church history, too? I think so, and it’s what I like to think we – me, guest posters, and Keepa’ninnies – do here: We certainly celebrate the positive points of Church history (faithful people, expressions of faith, delightful cultural bits) but we also recognize some of the darker facets of Mormon history (racism, violence, insularity). A lot of what we do seems analogous to what people like to know about their own family history: What was the Church like when Mom and Dad were teenagers? Tell me again about when Uncle Frank went to war. Where were our adventures when we first moved to this new place? Let’s look at the family photo album!
Does knowing something about our Church’s history make us better able to cope with hard times – whether “hard times” means a personal crisis like loss of a job or a death in the family, or whether it means a wavering of faith? Does it give us a sense of being “part of something larger,” as the psychologists reported about their study of families? And if so, how does that help us be more resilient? Do we feel more in control of life or faith by knowing something of Church history?
Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on anything related to how knowledge of of Church history – and especially the kind of narrative we tell – might relate to resilience and well-being.