Two of our grandchildren came with us to the Passion Day Mass yesterday. We’d been talking over the weekend about peer pressure, fair weather friends, and the dangers of posting anything in a digital format that you wouldn’t want to have to show your grandmother.
I found myself using the long double-Gospel of the Mass as an object lesson. See? One weekend you’re king for the day, and everyone cheers. The crowd are out in the streets laying down palms for your donkey to walk on. Five days later, the same people are in the same streets baying for your blood. Who, then, are your friends?
The New York Times had an article recently about the power of family stories to build resilience. The article talks about the research of a couple of Americans, who were interested in the observation that children who knew more about their families coped better in a crisis:
They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.
Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.
And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.
“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
Duke talks about three different themes in family narrative – the ascending theme (we came from nothing and built an empire), the descending theme (we used to have everything, and we lost it all), and the oscillating theme.
‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
Fascinating stuff. As those who’ve followed this blog for a while know, I’ve suggested (slightly tongue in cheek, but my recent readings around AI (artificial intelligence) just reinforce the opinion) that we should be called Homo Narrans – that our identifying characteristic as an animal is our ability to make sense of our environment by making a story out of it, and to then pass that story on to others. My master’s research methodology was based on the power of narrative to build cohesiveness into groups. Surely much of the strength of Christianity to endure and survive lies in the power of the Christian narrative. Passion Sunday’s epic readings take us from triumph through hope to agony and despair. We can’t not know that the resurrection follows. For us, even the descending narratives of the daily readings of this Holy Week – taking us step by step closer to the betrayal, the denial, and the cross – are coloured by the ultimate in plot switches of Easter morning.
Our Christian narrative is an oscillating narrative. I find it hard to believe that a descending narrative – one in which the leader died, betrayed by a close friend and deserted by all but one of his other friends – would have had any survival value for the nascent group. Did they pull themselves together enough to come up with a lie that would keep the crowds coming? Improbable, I would have thought. And the improbable is vastly less likely than the impossible. In this case, the impossible (the resurrection) simply means something happened that we don’t understand. The improbable means that people behaved in a way that is outside of human nature.
We belong to something bigger than ourselves, and – no matter what happens – we’ll survive; we’ll stick together as a family.
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