Tales of Resilience: How Our Ancestors Coped

I’ve been fascinated lately by the concept of ‘resilience.’

Our ancestors had it. Somehow they made it through wars and food shortages; terrible pandemics; losing a spouse or a child to disease or accidents.

And medical care? Well . . . some of the very best medical treatments back then would be cringe-worthy today. Sure, they had opium, laudanum, and whiskey to dull the pain. But just imagine trying to recover from a leg amputation during the Civil War, or an appendectomy in 1900.

The very best medical care a century ago might be cringe-worthy today.

Having a baby wasn’t just a happy event, one hundred years ago. It was a life-threatening one. Some parents watched child after child die before reaching adulthood, from accidents or illness. Families moved across the ocean or across the country in search of excitement and fresh opportunity. But that often meant they never got to see their loved ones or hometowns again.

And yet somehow, despite all their trials and sadness, people kept going. They found ways to bounce back and find joy in life again.

 So, how did they do it?

Let’s start with the obvious: People generations ago didn’t expect life to be easy. That’s number one, I think, in the resilience game: understanding that life’s joys and challenges come as a package deal. People back then knew they had to accept the “bitter with the better,” as the old saying goes. Somehow we’re not so geared for that, today.

Part two of our ancestors’ formula: Community really was a ‘thing’ back then. People shared the good and the bad with each other. Weddings were festive community-wide celebrations. Funerals were a time for communal grieving. There may have been petty rivalries, bickering, and disputes in those communities, too. But when pain and loss came along, you knew you weren’t facing the hard times alone.

Funerals were a time of communal grieving.

And perhaps the biggest resilience-secret from days gone by:  The connectedness of life meant important reasons to keep going. No matter what, the cows still had to be milked every evening. Family and friends still depended on you to put food on the table or get the hay in the barn. Today, too, simple daily routines reminding us how much we’re still needed can be an incredible steadying force when life throws us a curve ball.

Hope you’ll be thinking about the wonderful stories of resilience in your own family — they’re more great material for your memoir!

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Here are a few writing prompts about ‘resilience’ to help you get started:

* What ancestor or friend was a great resilience model for you? What challenges did they face, and how did they get through them?

* What group or community came together to support you when you really needed it, or were there to share a special happiness? How did that happen, and what did it feel like?

* What strategies have helped you recover from your own challenges or losses? What lessons have you learned about resilience that you’d like to “pay forward” and share with future generations?

Keep up the good work!

Speaking of History: 4 Tips for Giving a History Talk That’s Actually Interesting

Show of hands: Who positively hated history class in school?

Virtual high-fives, my friend . . . history class was soooo boring!

Yet this is how crazy life can be: now I write books and give talks about it. So what’s changed?

Well, I finally discovered history isn’t about memorizing names, dates, and wars. Nope. It’s about people. Their loves. Their struggles. Their heartbreaks and successes.

Everyday life in days gone by

Right now I’m preparing a talk for a local historical society. Dreading it? More like totally jazzed! I get to introduce my audience to great people and great stories – tales they’ve likely never heard before.

Stories of sadness and stories of survival. About lives taking fascinating twists and detours. Dangerous times and surprising discoveries.

History is about mistakes as well as successes
Great history stories include mishaps and mistakes as well as grand successes.

Want to skip the yawns and keep your audience wide-eyed and eager to hear more about a historical topic? Here are four tips for the history teachers out there – or anyone fortunate enough to be speaking about “days gone by.”

  • Make it about people—because it’s the people-stories that really capture our hearts and imagination.
  • Use illustrations. Lots and lots of illustrations. Images that grab the imagination. (Wouldn’t you want to know what mission that gent at the very top was off to?)
  • Focus on forgotten or hidden history – not the names, dates, and snooze-worthy facts everyone already knows.
  • If possible, add something that connects those “old days” you’ve been sharing with your listener’s life today. Maybe your presentation includes a photo of an old building that’s now facing demolition. Ask people to consider helping to preserve it. Or perhaps you’ve shared facts or details that you discovered in an unpublished family history. Remind your listeners to think about getting their own life story down on paper, while they still can!

One last point: If there’s a “special sauce” that makes any speaker more fun to listen to, it’s speaking straight from the heart. Let your passion for history’s amazing tales come out. (Because, after all, if you’re not passionate, you can’t possibly expect your audience to be!)

I suspect that’s why I’m asked to speak again and again — because my own excitement is contagious. And that energy is definitely a two-way street. There’s nothing that quite beats the high of looking out at your audience and seeing eyes opening wide and hearts opening up – to history!

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. And yes, she loves talking about history! For more about Karen and other fun stuff she’s done lately, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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