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How family history shapes our identity.

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Today, our definition of “identity” derives itself mostly from Erik Erikson’s concept of an “identity crisis. He defined “identity crisis” as “the condition of being uncertain of one’s feelings about oneself, especially with regard to character, goals, and origins…”

But then, what forms our character, goals and origins?

Over the course of our lives, we will internalize, both consciously and subconsciously, values or constructs simply because we are told to and because they seem natural. But if our identities are socially constructed, then they cannot be neutral. Indeed, society ultimately posits the superiority of one identity over another: men over women; whites over non-whites; straight over gay; wealthy over other classes; one religion over another… In fact all of these constructs – gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, etc. – determine, to a large extent, the roles that we ‘should’ be acting out, including whether we assume power within society or fall victim to systematic prejudices and unequal opportunities.

Understanding and studying our heritage — the good as well as the bad — is crucial to giving yourself a choice on how to interpret your own construct of self and your role in society.

Asking our loved ones, parents and grandparents to recount these stories can be difficult (“This is big people business!”), especially considering the trials they might have lived through. But it is necessary to look back in order to chart a better future, especially for the generations to come. Exploring our past means we can gain a more grounded sense of identity. One that can be less swayed by the media or the populist politicians or the radical theologians. This means a less troubled mind, a less troubled world. A more empathetic world.

Every day we lose thousands of oral histories and records. Time is precious and we cannot afford to wait until it’s too late. We all have a story to tell.