Gawain and Gayle J. Wells, “Hidden Benefits of Keeping a History,” Ensign, Jul 1986, 47
Gayle recalls: “Looking back on it now, it seems almost foolhardy to have begun writing my personal history when I did. The kids were about to be dismissed from school for the summer, and in a few weeks I would give birth to our sixth baby. But when I read about a course on writing personal histories, I decided to take it. I had made several unsuccessful attempts in the past at writing my history—but I was sure I could do better with the structure of class deadlines and assignments.
“Since the course was only eight weeks long, it was even more of a challenge than I had expected. Thank goodness for an understanding and helpful husband who encouraged me to keep writing. I sat hour after hour remembering and recording thoughts and feelings from so many yesterdays ago. And as I wrote, I felt the desire more strongly than ever before to complete my goal.
“I suppose I expected to be blessed eventually for writing my history, but as I became more and more involved in the process, I realized I was already being blessed in ways I hadn’t anticipated.”
Many unanticipated joys and blessings come from keeping a history. The blessings come not only from completing the records, but also from the process of writing them. What are some of these unexpected blessings? Let’s consider a few as we look at three record-keeping activities: gathering and reading histories of our progenitors, writing our own personal history, and keeping a journal.
It can be a great thrill to discover a diary or journal written by a grandparent or loved one. For example, the record of a great-grandmother’s experiences as a bride and young mother can touch the heart of a granddaughter and cause deep love, even though the two are generations apart. Just as we are strengthened as we read the words of early prophets, we can greatly benefit from the testimonies of our own ancestors as they recount for us their trials and sacrifices.
But many of our parents and grandparents left no written account of their lives for us to read. Even so, it is possible—and important—to obtain a record about them.
Alex Haley, author of the book Roots, has said: “In all of us there is a hunger, bone-marrow deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.” (Reader’s Digest, May 1977, pp. 73–74.) Several years ago, Mr. Haley was invited to participate in a late-night television show. He enlisted the help of a private genealogical research firm in gathering the roots of the show’s host. The total time he spent on the air was approximately ten minutes, and he mentioned just once the assistance of the research company. Beginning at 8:00 the next morning, and for the next several days, the firm was deluged with letters, telephone calls, and telegrams which finally totaled nearly 23,000 separate inquiries from people wanting to know about their roots! People were asking for help in finding out about themselves, their family, their ancestry. They wanted to discover where they belonged and to whom. They wanted and needed a knowledge and understanding of their past—a personal family history.
Discovering our family and our heritage can help us discover ourselves. One young man, a high school senior living in a city in the eastern United States, was troubled and unsure about what to do after graduation. He questioned his allegiance to the Church and was restless at home with his family. When his parents suggested he spend the summer with grandparents and relatives in southern Utah, he agreed.
Throughout those long summer days and evenings, as he worked alongside his grandfather and uncles, he talked with them. He asked questions about their past and delighted in their reminiscences. As he became acquainted with cousins and second cousins, he came to understand his own role in this living family. He began recording their histories, and as he did he discovered his great love for them and for his own family at home. Feeling more secure than ever before, he returned home with a sense of belonging. His summer’s experience had also given him quiet pride in the knowledge that he was part of a much larger and worthwhile heritage.
In gathering or reading personal histories from our parents or grandparents, we come to know and understand these individuals and have greater love and appreciation for them. And our hearts are turned to our living fathers as well as to our deceased ancestors.
Perhaps one reason our parents love us as much as they do is that they saw our early histories developing. They lived through our fevers as babies, our struggles with school and friends, our adolescent triumphs and despairs. Although we have not been as much a part of our parents’ early histories, we can share with them their remembered childhood feelings and experiences through oral or written records of them as children. As we come to see our parents as people—as individuals, not just as mom or dad—we come to understand and appreciate them more.
Sometimes children misinterpret the responses of parents or other adults and harbor feelings of hurt or resentment throughout their lives. The concern of a parent for a wayward son or daughter, for example, may have caused another child to feel unloved or overlooked. In reading or gathering the personal history of that parent, that child (now an adult) may come to understand the experience and thus relinquish any resentment he may have felt.
While one man was gathering his mother’s history, he was surprised to hear her express deep love and devotion for her deceased husband and the loneliness she had experienced in the years since his passing. As a child, he had heard his parents disagree many times, but had never seen them resolve their problems. He had sincerely believed throughout his life that they had remained together only for the sake of the children. With this new understanding of his parents’ relationship, he felt a greater love for each of them and a sense of peace and order in his life that he had always lacked.
“As I began recording my earliest recollections for chapter one of my personal history,” Gayle recalls, “I found myself reliving each experience. Details and images came into my mind that I hadn’t remembered before. I became so absorbed that I found myself weeping—and laughing—as I recorded certain incidents. It was as if I were actually stepping back in time, as did Emily in the play Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. I was experiencing my own past, but observing it now with the advantage of maturity and perspective.”
In Our Town, Emily laments that life is too wonderful for anyone alive to realize it. But in writing our personal histories, we have an advantage—looking at the past, we broaden our perspective and see ourselves and our lives more clearly and meaningfully. We then can come to appreciate otherwise overlooked opportunities and challenges.
For example, as we review our childhood thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we are reminded that we were children once ourselves! This “discovery” can help us see our own children with greater empathy and understanding. It can also help us recognize that time passes too quickly for us to wish away the hectic years spent with our children. Every day of this life is important as our histories continue to unfold.
We can also gain a greater appreciation for our parents as we write about them in our personal histories. Recalling our lives’ formative events from an adult point of view helps us recognize how often we depended upon our parents for emotional support as well as physical help. One friend wrote, “Always the soft answer came back whenever we would call to mother in the night. I wondered as a child if she ever slept because her answer was always there. It still is, though I’m years older and hundreds of miles away.”
Of course, not all of us can look back to warm, pleasant memories of childhood. Some of us recall loneliness, sorrow, anger, or bitterness. But, even in these situations, writing our histories can be valuable. As we face the past, after having survived it, we are somehow able to separate the precious, loving moments from the heartaches. And with compassion, we can learn to forgive and forget those real or imagined transgressions.
A woman seeking counseling said she had been deprived of a childhood; her widowed immigrant mother had given her too much responsibility. When her counselor encouraged her to write about those years of her life, she began with what amounted to a chronicle of complaints. She felt she couldn’t write any more—her father’s death and what followed were just too painful. Then he suggested she try again, this time seeing the situation from her mother’s eyes. The woman reported later that she cried most of the time she was writing—not for herself as before, but for her mother and for the love she now felt toward her.
A personal history can also help us clarify our life’s meaning and purpose. A young woman told us about her struggle with her own identity. She was unmarried at the time, living alone; over a period of months she had completely withdrawn from society. She was severely distressed and emotionally disturbed. Her older brother and his wife invited her to live with them, and reluctantly she accepted. For several weeks she kept to herself, hardly willing to come out of her room.
Then she got the idea of writing her life’s story. At first she struggled to recall facts and details, but soon her mind became clearer and she began experiencing the feeling of going back in time. One evening she surprised her brother with the statement, “I found myself in the fifth grade today! I can remember what it was like being ten years old!”
Her enthusiasm for the task lifted the burden of depression from her soul. Gradually she became more involved with her brother’s family, and even became interested in the community. Eventually she moved back into an apartment of her own, began dating, and later married. Without ever seeking professional help, she was able to settle for herself some critical issues about her life and the direction she wanted to take. She feels that writing her personal history brought great blessings of peace and healing in her life.
Writing in a journal is the best way to keep our personal history current. But a journal can best play its important role in our lives if we use it consistently. We might consider our journal as a map of our past, present, and future. We can look back to see where we have been, and then, with greater understanding and perspective, go forward, strengthened by our own experiences.
In order for this to occur, we must record more than just our daily comings and goings—although a record of these experiences becomes a storehouse of cherished memories. We must express our feelings about the situations we experience—not just the events themselves. For example, recording our feelings of love and pride in a precious two-year-old, along with details of her activities and comments, can bring great joy to her and us years later as we recall that stage in her growth.
Past accounts can bring peace of mind and greater tolerance to present stresses. For example, as we read of our late-night floor pacing with our five older children when they were babies, we have more patience now with the screams of our new little one and take courage in the knowledge that these sleepless nights will soon be past history as well.
Also important in journal writing is the recording of both our failures and successes. If we can look back and see where we failed in the past and why, we are better able to chart a course for success in the future. Likewise, recounting triumphs and accomplishments can be a great source of strength in periods of discouragement and frustration and can help us get past other difficult times.
A young mother, exhausted and discouraged, sat down to write in her journal one night. Instead, she began reading some of the earliest entries. She was amazed by the optimism and enthusiasm with which she had viewed her life five years before. Could that woman really have been her?
As she continued to view life through the journal entries of this energetic young woman, she didn’t become more discouraged with her present self—instead, she realized that she was reading about herself and that she still possessed the same qualities. She saw that she had been likable, pleasant, and faithful in a time of her life that was requiring more of her than ever before, and she determined to show the same courage again. When she finished reading, she had found renewed confidence in her own strength and ability to endure.
By recording our impressions and feelings in a journal, we come to better understand ourselves and recognize the responsibility we must take for our actions. We begin to see the whole situation more clearly—and receive insight into how to solve our problems. A journal can help us see our choices and alternatives more clearly. Faced with the choice of accepting a position with a firm in another city or remaining where he was, one man said, “Looking back through my journal, I’ve found the answer—it seems clear from the experiences I’ve had. I feel my family and I will be happier by staying here. And I finally feel good about my decision to stay.”
Our worries can become less worrisome and our fears less fearful when we write them down. Explaining our thoughts and feelings on paper can help relieve us of the turmoil and distress we might have felt. Expressing private feelings on paper can help to heal private hurts. A young woman wrote in her journal:
“Today would have been mother’s seventy-fourth birthday. How many times these past twenty years have I wished she were still here. How often have I longed to have her talk to me, reassure me, understand and love me. How I wish she could see the children and tell me that I am doing all right. Sometimes I ache with the emptiness I feel to have had to live these years without her.”
Our journals should become our own books of personal revelation. If we are careful and diligent in recording the promptings and insights we receive, we will begin to see a pattern of how the Spirit works in our lives. We will become more aware of the fact that we are indeed being guided in ways that we may not have recognized, and we will become more responsive to these thoughts, ideas, and influences as they come to us. We can be blessed as we write about our prayers and answers to prayers, our scriptural understandings, and our struggles to draw closer to the Lord.
Our journals should also chronicle the milestones we pass as individuals and Church members. What a blessing it can be to read again and again our impressions at the time of our baptism, ordinations, graduations, mission call, marriage. What a source of inspiration it can be to read our thoughts about our various Church callings, the births of our children, the deaths of loved ones. Our accounts of these and other important experiences become scripture to us and our families over the years.
Likewise, it is important to record our feelings as we witness important periods of world and Church history—periods long prophesied which come to pass in our lifetime. Just as we may be grateful for ancestors’ reactions to the historical events they lived through, our descendants will cherish our impressions of momentous times in our own lives.
As we include in our journals all the things that are dear to our souls, the book becomes a much needed reference point by which we can see and evaluate how our lives are going, both temporally and spiritually. Our self-understanding and self-esteem increase as we recognize that we can have control of our circumstances, with the help and guidance of our Father in Heaven who is willing and anxious to assist us in all our endeavors.
We are and must continue to be a history-keeping people. As we are blessed in reading records kept by ancient prophets as well as our own ancestors, we also have been asked to keep a similar record that we may touch the lives of those who follow us. And, in keeping this great commandment, we will experience greater joy and meaning in our lives.
Let’s Talk about It
After reading “Hidden Benefits of Keeping a History,” you may wish to discuss some of these ideas.
1. Did your parents, grandparents, or other ancestors leave records of their lives? How can you and your family benefit from reading them?
2. If your ancestors left no written life history, what steps could you take to compile one about them? Could this become a family project?
3. If you have written your own personal history, how has it helped clarify your life’s purpose and put things in perspective? If you haven’t yet begun, think of an event in your past that influenced you deeply; then write about it. Make plans to continue writing about yourself until you have completed a short personal history.
4. Are you currently keeping a journal? How consistent are you? List reasons why a journal could be beneficial to you. If necessary, plan a regular time and place to write in your journal.
[photos] Photography by Jed A. Clark