Why tell a story?
The answer became clear to me once again this morning as I read Frederick Buechner’s words: “My story is important not because it is mine, . . . . but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”
Yesterday in church a couple of people commented on my recent essay published in Mennonite World Review: “Christmas: Season of Courage.” When people like a piece of writing it is usually because they identify with the stories in some way. Their circumstances may have been quite different from mine, but the emotions are the same. And that is why they like the stories. Someone is telling their story. And they recognize it.
I treasured my father’s stories while growing up. He told stories about his experiences in World War I in the Russian medical corps. He knew the loneliness of being away from home in the huge city of Moscow as a young army soldier for the first time.
He also told about the deaths of his father, grandparents and an uncle in two quick weeks because of typhus and famine. He learned of the inhumanity of man to man when he was desperate for help to bury these four bodies.
I realize now he was trying to make sense of the atrocities and absurdities of the horrible violence he had been witnessing daily by talking about them.
I treasured each story not because I had experienced war horrors but because I have experienced the same emotions--the same aching emptiness after the death of a family member, the same desperate despair when the family purse kept getting emptier and emptier, the same strange exultant peace in the soul at arriving at a spiritual decision.
I think that is why I wait for a story, a personal story, when I listen to a sermon—I am looking for inspiration, not just more abstract terminology and vague generalities. I am waiting for the preacher to tell my story.
In story-telling the listener learns that hope is always hope, forgiveness is always forgiveness, courage is always courage. And even if he or she can’t quite articulate this vague understanding, identification takes place. “I am also that person in the story.”
This Christmas interest will once again migrate to new electronic equipment like smart phones, computer software, digital cameras, bigger TVs and much more. I find it hard to talk about such items because I know too little about them. I feel like a rabbit in a fish pond. I don’t migrate willingly to discussion about such items.
Since I live alone and don’t go out much anymore, I spend much time thinking about the past – retrieving the stories of my life. These elusive events flit back into my mind like butterflies on the wing, begging to be remembered. Other times they’re like wild boars, grunting “Remember me?” But they want to be brought to life, to be retrieved by someone. They are demanding to be told.
I like to tell stories about my life because that is what I know best. I like to give away my stories because then they become a shared experience.
What people my age have to offer in terms of wisdom, experience, and stories seems almost quaint when compared to passing on information about which is the best electronic game to buy.
In Michener’s Hawaii, the native children memorized their family tree, back eighty generations, and learned the stories of those generations. It was the life-blood being passed down generation to generation. DNA, if you will.
I see stories as a way of embracing another person or group – even a congregation. They tell the listener: “I trust you with this story about my life.”
In this hug-happy society, I advocate we pass along more stories. Hug someone with a real story today.