Do beauty and family stories go together? Should they? Do we want to leave the equivalent of a photograph in which we’re all smiling behind?
Most of us want to present ourselves in a positive light. Maybe not quite perfect, but normal. We want to cover the blemishes. We may not be the Cleaver family, but we keep mute about the family disfigurements, the bad times.
A lot of us would like our stories to portray something akin to Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegone. Our “women are strong, … the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” We leave a legacy worthy of the icon of family history—a balanced, symmetrical, healthy tree.
It’s normal to feel that way. More importantly, scientists tell us that it’s not merely a result of the media brainwashing us to appreciate perfect beauty. Neither is it solely the narcissistic state of modern society. Studies show that we’re hardwired that way. Perhaps, they theorize, our preference for symmetry and beauty, is nature’s way of helping us pick healthy mates. [i]
However, when it comes to storytelling, those filters made of rose-colored glass can dampen your story’s power to connect.
Beauty and family stories shouldn’t (necessarily) go to hand in hand. That’s because our appreciation of stories isn’t based on beauty. Think about compelling stories you’ve read or heard. Chances are that there was some ugliness—physical or metaphysical—involved.
In fact, according the Michigan State University’s Ken Ramsley, good stories require some less-than-perfect elements. They need an antagonist, a conflict, and “strong three-dimensional characters that change over time.” “Three-dimensional” doesn’t simply mean they jump off the page. Appealing characters are relatable. They have both good and bad traits. Faults. Carry baggage. Do things they regret.
Failing to present all sides of our ancestors, denies readers full access to their character. Often, the pretty façade we create isn’t something people can connect to. Artist Alex John Beck’s Both Sides Of photography project brings this point home. He set out to prove that it’s the imperfections, not flawlessness, that makes a human face captivating, despite what scientists say. He photoshopped portraits to render symmetrical representations of both the left and right sides of models’ faces. The results are stunning, and surprisingly, missing something.
According to Time Magazine, Beck thinks that something is character. “…beauty is more based on character than an arbitrary data point… Humanity is messy and should remain as such.”
The same is true of our family stories. They don’t have to be perfect examples of a life lived upright.
Of Trees, Beauty and Family Stories
Rather, it’s the ones whose forms bear witness to their age and the havoc wreaked by their environment that cause us to pull out the camera. Though mute, their scars give testimonies of resilience. We’re drawn to their history.
A walk in the woods brings home the “strong three-dimensional character” lesson. Which trees engage you? Do you find beauty in the ancient, old, gnarled, bent, broken, scarred, burnt, and even ravaged? Do you wonder what events transpired under their branches? What contributed to their unusual shape?
It doesn’t make sense to present the characters of your family’s past like boring pieces of paper. Ones processed from imperfect trees to look like every other sheet.
But don’t listen to me. Let the trees do the talking. Which ones do you think would have the best stories to tell?
[i] Ker Than, “Symmetrical Bodies Are More Beautiful to Humans,” National Geographic News (blog), August 18, 2009, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080818-body-symmetry.html; Charles Feng, “Looking Good: The Psychology and Biology of Beauty,” Journal of Young Investigators, December 2002, http://legacy.jyi.org/volumes/volume6/issue6/features/feng.html.