The Gift of Story

Note: I was invited to speak as part of California Lutheran University's (Thousand Oaks, CA) chapel series, "Every Good Gift." I chose to speak to "The Gift of Story." Following is a transcript from that presentation.

Well, it’s almost midterms, so I’m going to start it off with a test. It’s what I call “the ladder test.”

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The above picture of firemen falling off the ladder appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Christmas Day, 1951. It was taken on Christmas Eve 1951. The arrows point to firefighters who are falling to the ground, headfirst, from a ladder that broke while they were fighting an apartment building fire.

Now the ladder test.  What story would you tell about this experience if you were the falling firefighter and survived the fall? Would you focus on the faulty ladder, the dangerous working conditions, the budget cuts that led to the use of such aging equipment? Maybe you wouldn't tell your story at all because you would be involved in a law suit and your lawyer would advise you to keep quiet.

Christmas Eve 1951, Chicago IL

Christmas Eve 1951, Chicago IL

The men in the photo did survive. And the man at the top told a story that went something like this: The ladder broke and we fell from two stories up, but it was a white Christmas, fresh snow had just fallen. If it wasn’t for the snow we would have landed on a concrete sidewalk. It was that snow that saved our lives that night. God protected us. It was truly a Christmas miracle.

Christmas time 2014 with my sisters and brother

Christmas time 2014 with my sisters and brother

Fast forward many years and here’s a picture of five of that man’s 7 children taken this Christmas break. You might notice that I am in this picture. It was my dad who framed the ladder story as a Christmas miracle. You may also notice that two of my siblings, Patrick and Carol are disabled. My sisters and I are co-guardians for them now that my parents have passed away. But I want to share with you how my mom shared their stories with us as we grew up. If she were here today, she would tell you that the doctors said Patrick’s heart was too small, and that he wouldn’t live passed the age of 7, and she then she would smile and say, Patrick fooled them all. And in telling you about Carol, she would not focus on her disabilities, instead she would brag about how Carol knows the words of every Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley song ever recorded. My sister just took Carol to a Kenny Rodgers concert, and it turns out that, to the dismay of the people sitting next to them, Carol also knows the words to every Kenny Rodgers song.

My mom reading, 2007

My mom reading, 2007

Neither of my parents had a college education, yet they taught me useful lessons through the power of the story. My dad's framing of the ladder story and my mom’s framing of my brother and sisters disabilities helped foster in me a sense of enduring hope, and the realization that we have a choice of how we respond to the bad things that happen in this world. Through their stories, I also realized that the stories we hear and share can shape our worldviews and those of others.

Research tells us that stories – both hearing them and sharing them - shape our identities, affirm our values, and help us make sense of our lives. Narrative theorists study how stories help people make sense of the world, while also studying how people make sense of stories. Dr. Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, writes, of stories:  “They teach us about the world while infecting us with emotions. This combination has been shown to change attitudes and is often more effective than nonfiction at changing beliefs.”

Dr. Paul Zak’s research focuses on how stories interact with our brains. He discovered that when we listen to a good story, our bodies release oxytocin, a neurochemical that makes us feel empathy for the characters in a story. According to Zak, oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us, and these cues motivate us to engage to help others.

Researchers Kenneth and Mary Gergen call the stories we tell “windows on the truth.” Certainly Jesus’ parables would fit this description.

My dad’s ladder story helped me see nature as God’s creation, and a powerful way with which God connects with us. My Mom’s story about Patrick calls me to humbleness, and reminds me that even the most learned people can be wrong. From her stories about Carol, I am reminded to focus less on what we can’t do and more on what we can.

Mustard plants dot the fields near my home in Thousand Oaks, CA

Mustard plants dot the fields near my home in Thousand Oaks, CA

My parent's stories were influenced by the teachings of the Bible, and the lessons Jesus shared through parables. I think Jesus understood the narrative nature of humans, and also understood that we might need some help wrapping our heads around the transformative power of God’s love, and so he shared the parable illustrating the transformation of the tiny mustard seed to a mighty tree, and shared with us the transformation yeast can bring to dough. Jesus’ stories help us imagine the possibilities that are within each of us if we allow God to work through us.

Like me, many of you probably encountered your first stories through your parents, and then through fairy tales, myths, novels, movies and TV. According to the Gergen’s, our intimate and longstanding acquaintanceship with stories serve as a critical means by which we make ourselves “intelligible within the social world.” In other words – we tell stories to help people get to know us, and to build relationships.

Today, technology provides us with more ways to share our stories than ever before. We have Facebook posts, tweets, and visual storytelling through Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, to name a few. We can share a story with a touch on our phone or a click on our computer.  We don’t even have to create our own stories; we can just re-tweet or like someone else’s.

This makes me wonder what kind of stories are we choosing to share, and what are those stories saying about our values and us? In the telling of our stories, do we celebrate what others can do, or point out what they can’t. Do we approach others with humbleness, even if we are among the privileged because we are educated? And do we give thanks to God even when we fall?

Back in 1996, I served Americorp as a volunteer in service to America and developed a rural literacy program for kindergarten through third graders. It was while reading to one of the young students that I discovered the book, White Wave: a Chinese Tale, and was struck by its simple universal truth. I’d like to end by sharing a quote from the story with you:

Our favorite July 4th spot, Arch Cape, Oregon

Our favorite July 4th spot, Arch Cape, Oregon

“When the old man died, the shell was lost. In time, the shrine, too, disappeared. All that remained was the story. But that is how it is with all of us: when we die, all that remains is the story.”