By Guest: Dr Lidia Lae, Ph.D.

After my grandfather passed away, I paid more attention to the stories my mum shared about him. “Gung Gung,” as I used to call him, packed up his bag when he was 17 years old and left Meizhou, his village and home in China. Like most males coming of age, he left the family home in pursuit of his own destiny and made his way down to East Timor. He had his struggles establishing himself in a new place but soon settled down and then started a family.

Gung Gung loved books and would often have one in his hand. My mother recalls that he was such an avid reader, he taught himself Chinese geomancy, otherwise known as Feng Shui – literally meaning “wind-water” (i.e. fluid). He was consulted by people in our community when they wanted to move houses. Was this house oriented to have good Feng Shui? Would it be a home with harmony and balance? He was also sought after to determine which dates were good for weddings and funerals specific to the family. As Feng Shui included astronomical, astrological, architectural, cosmological, geographical and topographical dimensions, Gung Gung read widely and deeply to help people.

After the shocking Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, our extended family were broken up. My parents, brothers and I left for Portugal when I was a toddler. I didn’t see my grandparents for over four years until we reunited in Melbourne, Australia. I regret I never got to ask Gung Gung myself about his life story before his death during my sixteenth year. However, I have beautiful memories of him walking us to primary school and back, frequenting his favourite Chinese restaurant together in the city every Sundays for yum cha (dim sums and tea) and witnessing his love for reading. Though I never adhered to my grandfather’s Feng Shui, I believe my own love of reading came from seeing Gung Gung spending hours enjoying his books.

You and I have our own individual stories. My grandfather had his and I have mine but our stories are intertwined with the experiences we have shared. From the cradle, we begin to accumulate experiences that shape who we are, where we belong and what we believe and value. These experiences form the basis of our personal narrative, and they are unique to each and every one of us. For example, when my grandfather and I arrived in Australia and became citizens, we became East Timorese Chinese Australians. Most of our extended family were also living in Melbourne so we felt a sense of belonging to each other in our new country. We believed that our East Timorese Chinese culture was important and we valued our family deeply. The stories we shared about our family’s experiences of the invasion, of migration and living in different countries with their distinct cultures continue to shape our identity.

The prominent psychologist and researcher in narrative psychology, Dan McAdams, professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, defined identity as “the evolving self story (personal narrative) that draws together the past, present and future anticipations into a unifying narrative of self that gives meaning and purpose” (McAdams, 2001).

Identity is a life story. Our personal narrative provides us with meaning and purpose.

Therefore, the importance of our own stories lies in the way they help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. As my PhD investigated, stories – whether they are oral or written accounts – provide a way for us to make sense of the world around us (Lae, 2019). Our stories are a reflection of our identity, our values, and our goals. They are a way to connect with others and to build bridges of empathy and understanding.

The passing down of the oral history of my grandfather by my mother helped me to understand the man that my grandfather was. Listening to many other life stories from different cultures during my PhD research, I have come to appreciate that sharing our stories allows us to communicate our experiences, our struggles, and our triumphs. It is an opportunity to inspire and empower others who may be going through similar life experiences. When I hear the stories of how people overcome their dire circumstances, it fosters hope and enables me to persevere myself. Therefore, our stories impact the people around us.

Our stories can be a powerful tool for creating change in the world. I believe that we need to share them to make a difference in our society.

Furthermore, our stories are a way to preserve our own history and the history of our families and communities. They provide a record of our culture, our traditions and our collective struggles and achievements. Without our stories, we risk losing a part of ourselves and our heritage. My grandfather’s story is part of my heritage and my history that I value as it defines me as a person. My memories and the stories of him become part of me, part of my autobiographical memory.

My own research showed how self-narrative invariably draws from autobiographical memory to form narrative identity (Lae, 2019). And as we share our stories, they in turn are stored in autobiographical memory, so that both self-narrative and autobiographical memory keep building our core self. Over time, we develop a stronger sense of who we are.

It is significant to remember that our stories are not static. As McAdams highlighted, they evolve over time as we grow and change, and new experiences shape our narrative. Just as cultures change, so does our very selves. Embracing our own stories and the stories of those around us allows us to appreciate the distinctive beauty in each person’s dynamic journey.

Stories are the threads that weave together our history, experiences, memories, culture and self to propel us into the future. Without stories, our past, present and future may not be coherent and lead to a healthy identity. We may never recover the truth of who we really are and lead wholesome lives. I recall a client who lamented that she felt unloved and misplaced because she was given up for adoption. However, when she finally knew the truth of her parents’ account, that they loved her but were so stricken by poverty that they reluctantly gave her up so she could have a better life; it dramatically altered her self-worth. She owned the truth of her personal narrative and finally started to find herself lovable.

Stories matter. They cement identity.

In conclusion, our own stories are an essential part of who we are as individuals and as a collective society. They allow us to connect with others, understand ourselves, and preserve our history. Therefore, embrace your story and share it with the world, for you never know who you might inspire or empower along the way. It is through our stories that we better understand ourselves and are seen for who we are.

Lae, L. L. (2019). Culture, self-narratives and autobiographical memory: Using a semiotic narrative approach to investigate cross-cultural differences (Doctoral dissertation, University of Melbourne).
McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

About the Author

Lidia Lae

Lidia Lae, Ph.D., is a writer, psychologist, and speaker, committed to empowering individuals and organisations to build healthier cultures for meaningful contribution.

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