Sharing Our Stories
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 25, 2007
We don’t take nearly enough time to do this. “Without stories,” Carol Christ reminds us, “there is no articulation of experience.” Unless we have the chance to listen to the stories of others and, maybe even more important, to listen to and hear our own stories, then we can remain confused as to exactly who we are—as individuals, as a community, and as communities within the larger community.
Unless we have the chance to share our stories, and know ourselves better, then high ideals like community—and brotherhood and sisterhood—and patriotism—and justice—and equality—remain little more than intellectual constructs, just so much more high-sounding verbiage. They don’t become living, breathing forces in our lives unless they’re embodied: unless we see the human faces to which they’re attached; unless we know the human souls in which they are engendered,
Unless we have adequate opportunities to share our all-so-human stories, we will never be able to value adequately our journeys and our struggles.
Sometimes, in this modern day and age, we’re led to believe that only the Rich and Famous, the Mighty and the Powerful, have stories worth telling, and worth paying attention to. That unless we hear it on Oprah or on The Today Show, it isn’t worth anything. This is perhaps the Big Lie of our age.
We’re all involved, right now, in living out our own epic dramas upon this earth. I would bet that we all have within our own personal histories enough tragedy and comedy for Shakespeare (if he were still alive) to write 37 more plays about!
The daily trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows, of an American family trying to keep it all together in this frenetic world means as much to the unfolding of the cosmos as the latest escapades of some royal family somewhere.
I don’t care about Brittany’s latest antics, or Oprah’s latest diet, or Madonna’s latest boyfriend, or what’s going on with Brad and Jen and Angelina, if I can hear instead the story of the old Portuguese woman down the street, who came to America with eight dollars in her pocket, and struggled and skimped, and saved, and raised a family, and put her kids through school, and whose granddaughter just became a doctor.
In these lives of ours, my friends, “here on the course of everyday, here on our common human way”, there are countless stories with lessons worth learning, and wisdom worth discerning, if we take the time to tell our stories, and learn those lessons, and take seriously our own personal experience.
The tragedy of our culture is that we are always looking for authority and validation outside ourselves. We don’t take ourselves quite seriously enough; we don’t trust our own instincts that what we have to say is valid and true and worthwhile. But, as Bob Dylan sang, we don’t need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind is blowing. We don’t have to check the Weather Channel or weather.com to know if it’s raining outside. We don’t need to hire consultants, or make a trip to the self help section of Barnes & Noble to know how to live our lives. It doesn’t have to be of 60 Minutes for it to have real validity.
What happens if we go on ignoring our stories?
We’ll have no chance to find meaning in our pain, or to transcend it, or to come to celebrate our deep inner strength. Pain, then, remains simply pain. Period. And life is drear. It drones on and on, and then you die.
But life has meaning. (I don’t think we’d be in church this morning, if we didn’t believe that.) That meaning lies inside each one of us. But we have to look inside there to find it. And that requires taking ourselves—and our experience—and our stories—seriously. It means taking time to tell them, and to listen to them.
What else happens if we ignore our stories?
We become alienated from the deepest wellsprings of our own creativity. We’ll never be an artist, we say. We’ll never be a writer. We can’t be dreamers and do-ers. We can’t sing, or dance, or make beautiful music. Those things are all for people “out there”—those people “beyond” us—those people who are gifted—who are special—who are celebrities. That kind of creativity is for those people who are somehow “better than us”.
So we sit back passively and wait to be entertained by someone else. We become mere consumers of culture, rather than fellow creators of it.
But if we took the time to listen to ourselves, and looked inside, we might just realize that there’s music there. And art. And literature. Maybe not Mozart, or Michelangelo, or Hemingway or Yeats. But seeds of talent and creativity, nonetheless—just waiting to be nurtured; waiting to come to flower. Of course, every age has its geniuses: those towering figures toward whom the rest of us look with wonder and amazement. But ages before ours had good, strong folk traditions as well, which celebrated and valued and paid attention to the talents of those who made music and artwork because they chose to, because they wanted to, and not so they could make money at it. I’m afraid that the folk tradition of our own day has largely died out, because the mass, commercial culture has become so dominant.
We need to turn off the TV, or the CD player, and find the clarinet that’s been put away in the attic for the past thirty years or so. We need to take up the paint brush or drawing pad, or sit down at the potter’s wheel. We need to take pen or pencil in hand (or even sit down in front of the word processor) and write a story—or a poem—or an essay. Look within your own soul and find your way to create—create! Forget about “Dancing With the Stars”, and go and dance yourselves! Forget about “Grey’s Anatomy”, or “The Simpsons”. Forget about James Patterson or Clive Cussler or Ken Follett. Even forget about Bruce Springsteen (for a little while, at least). Paint your own picture! Sing your own song! Tell your own story!
We need to share our stories with one another. Without listening to others—and hearing what they have to say—we become isolated from one another. We become closed off in our fear, strangled by our distrust of those who seem “different” than we are. But isn’t the point of life supposed to lie in that “difference”? If we take no time to behold that wonder of differences, we miss out on the magnificence and multi-faceted jewel-edness of those “others” with whom we share this Earth. They’ll all remain just strangers to us, potential enemies. We’ll never sense the wonder of their personalities. We’ll never discover the wonder of how their stories and experiences can resonate with our own, either, as different as we may all seem on the surface of things.
So much of the prejudice and discrimination and cussedness of this world happens because people affix labels to other people—“Black”, “Jew”, “Gay”, “White European Male” (and those are the polite labels)-- rather than treating each person as an individual with his or her special story, his or her particular history. You know, there are two things that are true: First of all, those people who seem so alike on the surface (all those Blacks, or all those Muslims, or all those whatevers) can be as different from one another, as we are from them. And secondly, many of those people who seem so very different from us have an awful lot more in common with us, as individual men and women, as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, than we might ever imagine possible. These two facts of life seem obvious; they’re just common sense. But how often we overlook them and ignore them, in our haste to paste labels on other people.
When we honestly and openly share our stories with one another—who we are; where we’ve come from; where we dream to go—then we’re doing so much more than merely sharing information or even experiences with one another. When we use those twin keys of honesty and risk, and truly open up ourselves to another person, then we are making a quantum leap from the “How are you/ I’m fine” mode of conversation that too often passes for “communication” nowadays. We are smashing down those interpersonal Berlin Walls that separate us, and we are, in fact, demonstrating to that other person: “You are a part of me, and I am a part of you, and our experience is important. We are united. We share the same garment of destiny.”
From our stories, we can discern all the human wisdom we will need to get us through these troubled times.
We’ll gain wisdom by bearing of the lessons other people have learned about getting through life.
We’ll gain wisdom by hearing how closely our stories resonate with theirs.
We’ll gain wisdom by realizing how unique each of our stories is, as well.
But we need a community—or a whole bunch of smaller communities—in which this listening can take place. Maybe churches can start to fill that need for some of us. One thing about churches is that they force us out of our little demographic ghettos where we spend so much of our time in this modern world. They force us out of the ghetto of our own age group—or our own social class—or our own political party—or our own lifestyle—and out into the wider world of all the living. And “Blessed is he [or she] who is joined to all the living,” the book of Proverbs reminds us. Blessed is the one who moves out beyond his or her little circle, and starts mingling in the wider world of this diverse human race.
We also need to find the time (and I know that’s not always easy) to get out into the community and join with others in common endeavors. It is various civic groups that have, traditionally, maintained the precious chords of memory linking the present to the past. Over the past forty years or so, many of those organizations have experienced the same decline in membership and participation that many of our churches have. As Robert Putnam pointed out in his 1996 book, Bowling Alone, people bowl as much as they ever did; but the number of people who take part in bowling leagues has shrunk steadily since the 1950s. We’re all busier than ever. But we’re also more isolated from one another, and more disengaged from each other than ever, as well. That’s not a combination that makes for a mentally healthy or happy society. Bowling alone is like talking to yourself: they’re not bad activities in and of themselves, but they don’t do much to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another, do they?
But I think there’s hope—a hope that can come alive only if we help it to. The hope of our society, maybe even our world, may well lie in those thousands upon thousands of small circles of personal storytelling—of listening and speaking and sharing—all across our land: support groups, 12-Step organizations, women’s circles, men’s groups—in churches and temples and grange halls and community buildings, thousands upon thousands of small circles, radiating, growing, larger and larger and larger, giving our stories a place to be voiced; bringing something of the wisdom of who we are to a world which needs it so badly.
I remember a cartoon I once saw in a minister’s magazine. The minister of a church was about to retire after a long and illustrious career. The banner on the wall read: “Farwell, Pastor So-and-So”. One of the people there was presenting the retiring minister with an absolutely huge, ornately-bound, leather volume. It was tremendous in size, the biggest book anyone had ever seen. And as he presented this really big book to the minister, this parishioner was saying: “It’s your biography, Pastor. We reconstructed it from the anecdotal references in your sermons.”
Ministers often like to talk about themselves. And we are blessed to have the opportunity, often, to do so. I could tell you stories enough to write a book—and I have.
But you know what? I also know that the life experiences of each and every one of you could fill a volume that deserves to be bound in genuine Corinthian leather and stamped in gold leaf, just as certainly.
“Not to have any story to live out is to experience nothingness,” writes the Catholic theologian Michael Novak. “[There is] a primal formlessness of life below the threshold of our narrative structuring.”
Through our “narrative structuring”—and “narrative structuring” is just a fancy word for telling stories—we fashion out of the whirlwind chaos of our existence a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, and a reason for living. From our stories we gain some answers (at least tentative ones) to the ultimate questions of why we are here.
Karen Snow has written:
Each one of us has a gospel to proclaim to all the nations. We start by telling those stories to one another. May we search high and low to find places to share those magnificent stories—that deeper wisdom—which each one of us represents.