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This week at the BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy, George Durrant, LDS author and long-beloved professor of Religion at BYU, spoke of the importance of each of us writing our own personal history. You may not consider writing your personal history to be an essential element of doing your family history, but it is. When the hearts of your children turn to your fathers, you will be the link that helps to bind them and your perspective and knowledge will be essential in ways you might not even know.
In his humorous and humble way, Durrant addressed the question that probably runs through the minds of many when they consider the undertaking of recording their personal history: “What if my life is nothing special?” “What if I haven’t done anything worth writing about?”
“We don’t care if you were president of anything,” he said, “we want to know how you acted as a father, as a mother, what integrity was in your heart.” Insightfully he added, “Your personal history ought to be about the heroes in your life, not about how you were a hero.”
I can tell you, however, that reading about what you experienced and what you overcame will make you a hero to your posterity, whether you portray it that way or not.
My summer writing project in the interim between the two years of my Masters program was a non-fiction look at my female ancestors called, The Women I Know. Essentially, I got school credit for spending a whole summer studying and feeling close to my grandmothers. It was just as I was on the verge of getting engaged to my now husband and I was feeling the jitters of such a major life decision that I read about their marriages, studied their romances, devoured their love letters.
My Nana Jensen was empirically extraordinary in many ways, but it was in reading about the simple, but abiding love she had for her husband that she came to life for me and she turned my pre-engagement jitters into reassurance and excitement for the love and the life I could have. I had read easily thousands of love stories in my life to that point, but her love story was different because it is, in a very real sense, my own story. My Nana and Papa are my heritage and so the strength with which they overcame life’s struggles and the union between them that fortified them both through it all, seemed like a truly reliable source of comfort and peace to me. We share genetics so, if they could do it, I can do it.
Likewise, the things you have overcome and the ways you have triumphed may seem run-of-the-mill to you because you were there, but they will mean everything to your great-grandson who is still waiting to overcome some similar problem. All the encouraging anecdotes in the world won’t mean to him what the personal experience of his flesh-and-blood would mean.
Many will remember the admonition of President Henry B. Eyring to keep a record of the ways you have seen the hand of the Lord in your life, but you might not remember his reasoning. Undoubtedly it will build your own testimony to take the time to recognize God’s hand, but in addition President Eyring said, “I was supposed to record for my children to read, someday in the future, how I had seen the hand of God blessing our family…I wrote it down so that my children could have the memory someday when they would need it.”
Whether you have achieved prominence or fame in this life matters much less than whether you have seen the hand of Lord there. That is the history that your children will dearly need. It was a history so important that the Spirit commanded Nephi to slay Laban so that his people would not have to live without that kind of understanding of their fathers.
In that context, it suddenly seems awfully important not only to do it, but to get started right away.
“Write your personal history,” said Durrant, “use your heart as your source. Let that overflow onto the paper.”
“You weren’t always first team All-American,” he added, “sometimes you were on the bench, but stories that come from the bench are some of the most tender stories of all.”
In his address, George Durrant shared a few of his own ‘stories from the bench’ including telling of how incredibly shy he was growing up. He described the prettiest girl in his high school, Louise, and how much he admired her. But seeing that a map of the United States has Louisiana and Georgia kind of together was the closest he got to being near her for a long time.
Eventually, he did take her on one date. They went to the movie theatre to see Sentimental Journey. He was too shy to speak to her the whole way there and when they arrived, he bought a bag of popcorn. Sounds like a recipe for a great time, only he was too shy to offer her any of the popcorn, the prospect of her saying “no” was too much for him, so he ate it all himself.
This petrified timidity, from a man who went on to spend his entire adult life speaking in classrooms and auditoriums and lecture halls in front of hundreds and hundreds of people. Think of how meaningful it will be to some shy grandchild of his someday, to know that Grandpa was shy too, but he found a way to be bold. He went on a mission and learned that any righteous endeavor you pursue in the name of Christ, you can do with confidence.
The world needs your personal history. More importantly, your family needs your personal history. Perhaps you feel you haven’t done things significant enough to publish, maybe you think you’ve spent too much time on the bench. But as George Durrant concluded, “Most people are sitting on the bench and when you’ve sat on the bench yourself, you know how to ask them if they’d like to stand up and get in the game.”
Even after you’re gone, you have the power to help your descendants stand up and get in the game.
So, start writing.