There was an article in the New York Times recently about the importance of cultivating a family narrative to instill a sense of identity, control, and resilience in children. The more children know about their family story, the better equipped they are to handle stresses that would shake their foundation. Is it possible that, in the realm of personal health and well being, the cultivation of an affirmative family medical narrative might bolster one’s constitution?
Family narratives tend to follow one of three arcs. First there is the ascending motif: your grandfather came to this country as a peasant, his son became a teacher, and now you are in medical school. The second theme is the descending one: we used to have it all but now everything is falling apart. And the third narrative, which seems to be the most edifying, is the nuanced one: your father was a great business man, but he sometimes drank too much. Your grandmother was an excellent piano player, but her brother was in trouble with the law. No matter what, they stuck together as a family.
Children with the most confidence seem to possess an inter-generational self, a sense of identity that is part of something bigger. They can recall past chapters of hardships overcome by other family members, and get to work writing such stories of resilience when life presents new setbacks and sorrows.
Is it possible that in order to create a healthier, adaptive sense of well being we should set out to tell stories of good health and sanguine habits, and at the same time revere the tales of medical adversities overcome? Often we cannot control what medical ailments come our way, and many are utterly devastating. But as a family doctor I have seen family ailments that are less a genetic predisposition than an inherited legacy of symptom comprehension and behavior.
I hope to incorporate the strength of my great grandfather, who built his own house in the forest and chopped wood well into his eighties. I recall and regret that my grandmother smoked for fifty years, addicted as most of her generation was to nicotine. Yet I honor and hope to emulate her courage in the face of chemotherapy when it is my turn – may I have the strength of character to still make it to church and the farmer’s market on Sundays, holding my bald head high and keeping my exhausted eyes open to fight another day.
We should tell our medical histories, both good ones and bad ones, to our children – with hopeful, brave, and steadfast themes of endurance and vigor. It might just save or comfort a life.