On nearly every headstone, no matter how plain or ornate, is carved one universal symbol. It’s a simple horizontal line—a dash—separating two significant dates. The first marks the day one precious soul entered this mortal life. The second marks his or her inevitable journey onward.
A well-known poem by Linda Ellis, “The Dash,” speaks of this symbol:
“For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
know what that little line is worth.”
We are each, right now, standing somewhere in the middle of our own individual dashes. As Dieter F. Uchtdorf has said, “We may feel we are at the beginning or end of our lives, but when we look at where we are against the backdrop of eternity . . . we can recognize that we are truly in the middle” (“Always in the Middle,” Ensign, July 2012, 4).
Because it’s human nature to think of our lives in terms of beginnings and endings, the new year gives us the perfect opportunity to make sure we are making the most of that dash, filling in the details of our lives so our loved ones and our posterity are not left wondering what happened in between.
All of us are “in the dash.” But, you may be thinking, “I’ve got plenty of time to record my life story for my posterity. Why start now? Why this year?”
Here’s why: because, in addition to the value of leaving a legacy, great personal and family benefits also arise from personal reflection and journaling.
Personally, you’ll benefit from the practice of reflecting over your life, collecting your thoughts, and making sense of your experiences. The very act of writing things down is therapeutic; it can provide a sense of purpose and control. It may also reveal patterns in your life, increase your gratitude, foster a stronger sense of self, and even make you happier and more successful in your daily life.
In his book The Happiness Advantage, Harvard professor Shawn Achor cites research that shows how “explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success. People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary . . . while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent. Their beliefs then directly affect their actions” ([New York: Crown Publishing, 2010], 187–88).
The pen (or keyboard) is in your hands. You get to choose how you interpret and explain the events of your life—both for your own benefit and for the benefit of current and future generations. And not just at some future date. Right now.
A study published in the Journal of Family Life in 2010 (“Do You Know? The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being”) found that teens who knew more stories about their extended family were more resilient in the face of adversity. They showed "higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning” (“Children Benefit if They Know About Their Relatives, Study Finds,” Emory University press release, Mar. 3, 2010).
Citing this research, Bruce Feiler wrote in the New York Times that children with the most self-confidence have what’s called a strong “intergenerational self.” In other words:
“They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Don’t expect to sit down and pour out the events of your entire life in one epic writing session. Just like a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a personal history begins with a single story, followed by another story, and another one. And that’s where FamilySearch’s #52Stories Project comes in.
The idea is to write one brief story about your life, past or present, every week this year. You can do this in a handwritten journal, in a document on your computer, or via a series of voice or video recordings. You can even select certain stories to share on your FamilySearch Family Tree profile, where they’ll be preserved for your posterity.
At the end of the year, you’ll have 52 notches in your personal history dash. That’s 52 opportunities to capture the story of your life—52 chances to shape your family’s intergenerational narrative.
Sounds easy enough in theory, but what on earth are you going to write about each week? Should you just start at the beginning and record all the events of your life chronologically?
Actually, no. That’s the most challenging way to go about this project. Memory isn’t orderly, structured, or predictable. Recollections are more likely to surface randomly, sparked by various external triggers. Embrace the randomness, and just start writing. You can always organize your stories later if chronology matters to you.
You don’t have to look far for a great series of memory triggers. The #52Stories Project has divided the year into 12 themes, from “Goals & Achievements” to “Education & School” to “Holidays & Traditions,” providing 12 different questions for each theme. That’s a total of 144 questions, giving you plenty of options to choose from as you build your library of #52stories. The questions are available for download, and you’ll also see a different question highlighted each week on Instagram (@FamilySearch) and the FamilySearch Facebook Page.
Your Story Matters
Start filling in the details of your dash now, while you’re still in the middle. Discover the power of shaping your own personal history, strengthening family bonds, and yes, leaving a legacy.
“A life that is not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory,” said Dennis B. Neuenschwander in a 1999 LDS general conference address. “What a tragedy this can be in the history of a family. Knowledge of our ancestors shapes us and instills within us values that give direction and meaning to our lives.”