Once there was and there was not…
The Lost Keys
One day Nasruddin was on his hands and knees when a friend came by who asked, “Nasruddin, what are you looking for?”
Nasruddin smiled at his friend and said, “My keys.”
The friend joined Nasruddin and searched for a while but after finding nothing, turned to Nasruddin and asked, “Where did you lose your keys?”
“In my house,” answered Nasruddin.
“Then why are you out here on the street if you lost your keys in the house?”
Nasruddin answered, “There’s more light out here on the street.”
Stories are entertainment, they offer pleasure and delight, inviting us to laugh at our very human foolishness. A good story can be a good break from our own lives, a chance to just relax and be light hearted. Stories can be comforting. I watch Elf every Christmas.
But stories do more then make us laugh.
To be human is to tell stories.
We tell stories to delight, to learn, to share, to hope, to remember.
We tell stories to be human.
We tell stories to make sense of our lives, of the world. If we didn’t have stories, if all we shared was information, everything that happened would just be a big giant glob of data.
It is only when it is organized, once you have a way of explaining it that has meaning. Only then can we understand and learn and respond.
To look for keys in the street is not foolish, unless you lost them in house.
Stories give meaning to our lives, to the world.
They help us cope, to know we are not alone. When a story of failure or anxiety or sadness is shared, someone else nods in agreement.
Yes, that happened to me. I felt that way too. Me too.
The MeToo hashtag that went viral across social media provided thousands of women with the knowledge that they were not alone in facing sexual harassment.
Knowing our personal experience is shared by others helps us to manage, reassuring us that others survived, so we can too. And helps us build movements for change.
Sharing stories creates connections between people.
Close families often have special stories that shape their identity and provide a strong bond.
A mother might say, “we Maclarens never back down from a challenge.”
A grandfather might say “All Farooq children play soccer.”
Family stories influence – for better and worse – our understandings of ourselves. And some of the stories may not have been said out loud.
We might have learned to keep secrets or we might have learned helping others is a good way to live. We might have embraced the story of ourselves from our family or spent our lives resisting it.
Either way, these stories shape the sense of ourselves.
They teach us what to value, what matters.
They teach us how to be a person.
I don’t have a lot of family stories because my parents rarely shared stories of their childhoods. Extended family was far away in England so I didn’t hear their stories either. I didn’t find a place in family history to fit in, because that’s not what we talked about. So I struggled to find my identity.
I found myself in other stories – books and television and film. I read about girls who were quiet and thoughtful, clever and funny, strong and courageous. I wanted to be all of them.
I wanted magical adventures like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or space adventures like Princess Leia.
These stories did made real life seem rather mundane. Going to a red brick school paled in comparison to being on a yellow brick road with a talking tin man.
I suspect I felt I couldn’t be myself until I was out in the world, where I could join the fight against Darth Vader.
It was tough to realize that the bad guys in real life aren’t so clear, they don’t make it easy by striding around in a black helmet trying to blow things up.
Stories can be hard to translate to reality.
But the stories I loved so much taught me the world could be re-imagined. That Mississauga was just one kind of place. That if I didn’t like the way the world worked, it might be possible to change it.
Stories help us make sense of ourselves and the world.
And when the stories stop making sense, it’s time to tell a different story.
When we only hear stories by one kind of person, it’s time to hear from other people.
The stories we tell about ourselves and the world matter. Stories help us become who we are.
What stories shaped you? What family stories influenced you? What other stories called to you?
The Blind Men and the Elephant
In a village in India, a long time ago, there lived six blind men. One day an elephant was brought into the village.
The six blind men were curious about all the stories they had heard about elephants. None of them had ever been near an elephant so they decided to visit this new creature and see what they could learn.
The first blind man reached out and touched the side of the huge animal. “An elephant is smooth and solid like a wall!” he declared.
The second blind man put his hand on the elephant’s limber trunk. “An elephant is like a giant snake,” he announced.
The third blind man felt the elephant’s pointed tusk. “This creature is as sharp and deadly as a spear.”
The fourth blind man touched one of the elephant’s four legs. “What we have here,” he said, “is an extremely large cow.”
The fifth blind man felt the elephant’s giant ear. “I believe an elephant is like a huge palm frond”.
The sixth blind man gave a tug on the elephant’s coarse tail. “Why, it is like a rope. How odd.”
The six blind men fell into arguing, each insisting their understanding was the correct description of an elephant.
Perhaps they are still arguing to this day.
Our need for stories is a need to understand the patterns of life – both intellectually and emotionally. Stories shape our sense of self and connect us in community. Ties between groups of people grow through common stories as well as shared experiences.
All the ancient religions are based on shared sacred stories from the torah to the new testament to the qu’ran. Hinduism is a vast collection of stories as is Buddhism.
Unitarian Universalism is a young religion, we are still gathering our stories.
Many religious stories are teaching tales, stories of how to live well, how to live together, what it means to be a person of character.
An Apache First Nations elder once said “stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right.”
Religious stories provide a shared understanding of the world, of creation and the human place within creation. These stories have united people across the world, again, in ways both good and destructive. Some of that destruction came from untying the stories from place and making them universal.
As the Blind Men and the Elephant story suggests, all truths are partial. No one story is the only story. It is only by hearing many stories that we might come to see the larger whole.
Stories have context. Once out of context, meaning changes. Many years ago, children’s author Robert Munsch was on a storytelling trip up in Northern Canada and told the story The Mud Puddle to Inuit children.
They sat quietly as Munsch told the funny tale of a mud puddle that jumped out of trees and got kids dirty. When he finished, they sat in silence until one Inuit child raised their hand and asked “what’s mud?”
The Inuit kids found the story funny once he retold it with a snow bank.
We all need stories that reflect our own lives and experiences. Robert Munsch went on to write stories set in Northern Canada, so that Inuit children could see themselves in story.
It’s why it matters that people of colour, people of different sexual orientation, indigenous people have their stories told in media.
And for the stories to be told from their perspective, not from a straight or white person’s perception.
It’s empowering and comforting to see yourself reflected in stories. As a white middle class woman, I see myself everywhere.
Hearing the story of someone different can provide a taste of the experience of the world from another perspective.
Young people might hear what it is like to be elderly. Women connect with the life of a young boy. White people might hear a little of what it means to be a person of colour in white culture.
And these stories of difference again help us to remember that no story is the only story.
Neuroscience research suggests that when a person tells a story or listens to a story the region of the brain which governs empathy lights up. One study found that when people were emotionally engaged in a moving story – when they identified with a character – their sense of empathic concern for others remained higher even a week later. (Aeon magazine)
Stories can help us learn to care for one another, to understand we are all tangled up in life together.
My story of white middle class privilege is not the only story. An elephant is not just a giant palm frond of an ear.
Hearing many stories, hearing the differences while also finding the common connections, helps us be human together.
The Old Woman and the Pot by Chris Cavanagh
There was once an old woman who, one day, was feeling very sorry for herself. Her husband had recently died and she was also thinking of her many children, of whom two had also died. She thought about what a terrible thing it was to outlive your children. Many of her children still lived and she knew that she had lived a good, if hard, life. But her self-pity was strong and she felt doubly bad for this indulgence.
She decided to go to the market and, there, perhaps lose herself in the bustle and noise of the crowd. Once in the market her spirits did begin to lift when she noticed a pot-seller’s table and remembered that she needed a new pot. On the front of the table was a nice, shiny new pot the exact shape and size that she needed.
She asked the price and the potseller said, “For that pot, four kopeks.”
Yes, thought the woman. It is a lovely new pot and too expensive. She looked over the table and, to one side, saw another pot, a little smaller but still good for her purposes. It looked old but it would do.
“For that pot, five kopeks,” said the potseller.
The woman was surprised and said, “But I don’t understand. How could that pot be more expensive than this nice new one? I don’t mean to embarrass you but, that pot looks used.”
“Ah!” said the potseller and he lifted his hand and struck the old pot hard with his finger. The pot sent a musical note into the market air that stopped all those around who heard it until the sound dissipated into the morning air.
“You see, we who make pots know that you do not judge a pot by the way that it looks but by the note that it sings.”
“Oh, yes,” said the old woman, smiling. “I knew that. I just forgot it for a moment.”
I like this story because it is a reminder that the story itself matters. Family stories shape who we are, cultural stories bind us into community.
Hearing others stories helps connect us develop empathy and reach across difference to our common humanity. Stories shape our lives, as Thomas King says “The truth about stories is that that is all we are.”
But like anything of power and meaning, stories can be dangerous. People who grew up in abusive households, who were told they were worthless, know that some stories are lousy. People who experienced life in cults or grew up in Nazi Germany know that stories in which other people are identified as wrong or as less than human have terrible consequences.
And because stories have power, these stories can be hard to change.
Cultural stories have all sorts of embedded assumptions that unless challenged, stick around. Welcoming stories from many people helps shift the larger story.
Canada no longer tells the story that Indians were savage and Europeans civilized them. Having finally heard indigenous stories, we say the First Nations people had their own civilization and Europeans destroyed it to gain land. As we keep talking together, we may – all of us – eventually be able to tell a new story of working together in mutual respect.
The stories we tell about our culture and community matters. As do our own stories.
The stories we tell about ourselves can help us or hinder us. They can help us accept ourselves as we are, or condemn ourselves. Sometimes we tell stories that hide our true selves, even from ourselves.
It’s important to make time to reflect on our own stories, to see what we are saying as we go about our lives.
Do we celebrate or berate? Are we following a story of success on someone else’s terms or our own values?
Do we care about the way the pot looks or the note the pot sings?
Do we value our own character, do we act in ways that express our identity and values?
My hope is in this month of stories we seek out stories that help us understand ourselves better and help us connect to others with empathy and care. Let us remember that we are a storytelling people.
Knowing stories are powerful, let us tell stories that help heal ourselves and the world.
So Say We All.