Stories and Story-Telling

by Nov 1, 2016

It’s November, and stories are part of this month.  Some people I know — including some within Ethical Culture — take part this month in National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo), taking some disciplined time to put 50,000 words onto paper or a computer screen in 30 days to form fiction, imaginative stories.

And with American Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday, and a massive protest of indigenous peoples over land and water in North Dakota (#NoDAPL), we struggle as a culture with stories from the past about how the settlers/invaders from Europe and the indigenous people already here interacted.  It turns out that the cultural story of a First Thanksgiving that many of us were taught in school — a peaceful partnership of Pilgrims and New England Indians having a feast together –not only didn’t happen, that story didn’t actually become a widespread cultural story until just after World War I.  The relationship between the New England and New Netherlands settlers from Europe and the Pequot and Wampanoag indigenous people — who probably at first thought that these new people were here as visitors — was far more complicated.  And no turkey, no stuffing, no cranberries, no corn at some peaceful sit-down shared meal.

There are no true stories; we are making up every one of them. ~ Pema Chodron

There are only true stories. We are discovering the truth in them. ~ Christina Baldwin

The truth about stories is that that is all we are. ~ Thomas King

Those who tell the stories, rule the world. ~ Hopi Proverb

Stories have a power to shape our lives and to provide meaning-making for individuals and a whole culture. Stories are how our minds are able to try to make sense of the world. As we encounter new and strange situations, especially emotionally-charged situations, our minds make up narratives to try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s how our brains are designed. The structures of the brain that can effectively make meaning through narratives develops through our childhood. Children need to hear and tell stories, and parents and other loving adults need to understand that the line between truth and fiction isn’t as clear to young children as it is to a mature adult.

Some stories are about truth, and some are more about “truthiness.”

Even as adults, our minds reach quickly to make a convenient narrative about what’s happening to us, whether or not it’s coherent with reality. That sort of story often comes out as an analysis or judgment of another person we’re interacting with. The analysis or judgment we form is often more about soothing our emotional turmoil than it is about accuracy about the other person’s actions and motivations.

Some of those stories we develop in our lives are more coherent with reality than other stories are. The more our personal stories of what’s happened in our own lives are coherent with reality, the more we are empowered, secure, able to trust.  If we are invested in stories that aren’t coherent with reality, we are likely to be more easily frightened and hurt.

I suspect the same is true of cultural stories.  The stories are often more about trying to make sense of power relationships than they are about coherently reflecting reality. Cultural stories can be powerful aids to creating a vision and values — and they can also, when less coherent with reality, justify inequality, injustice, and oppression.

Fiction has a definite place in making sense of life by exploring imaginatively the possibilities within life, and even by practicing empathy and understanding for those who aren’t us.  But false history, a different kind of fiction, has a much more ominous place. Individuals or whole cultures try to make sense of reality but actually create a dangerous alternative reality which then takes on the appearance of deep truth.  Mythological or fictional stories can tell truth, or create a false sense of truth.

Stories are powerful tools, and are clearly related to ethics in the sense of ethics we hold in an Ethical Culture community.  Does the story honor the human worth in every person, including our selves? Does the story promote a sense of human connection among equals?  Is the story coherent with reality, allowing for healing of past injuries and pains between people?

In some ways, I can see where the false story of a peaceful first Thanksgiving feast between Pilgrims and Indians may have come from good intentions to honor equality and human worth.  But the story omitted and thus hid that the equality, the respect for human worth, was not really there in that time of history. And thus justifies continuing that absence. The story covers or denies the reality of injustice, oppression, and even murders, and thus also hides the reality of the continuing inequalities of power and justice.  The story makes such continuing injustices seem less real.

So as we think about ethics and stories this month, I invite you to consider both personal life stories and cultural stories that may make sense and even shape current reality — and to question how coherent with reality they really are.

Even as in many homes this month many gather to express gratitude for the good in life that we experience, may we also acknowledge responsibility for healing wounds of the past and present, including our part in either committing those hurtful acts or passively reaping benefits of hurtful acts in the past and present.

At the Society this month, we’ll hear about stories in different ways at our Sunday meetings and in some of our programs. In a repeat of last year’s Stone Salad, we’ll remake a traditional story as we make a salad to feast on together.  We’ll also be hosting a potluck Thanksgiving Day dinner for those available and interested.  In many different ways, may we think about the stories we tell and how coherent they are with reality, as these stories both represent memory and reshape the future.

Some questions to ask yourself this month:  What stories did “elders” pass on to you? What story did you inherit from your family of origin? How did the stories help shape who you are? How coherent are those stories with reality?  How has reshaping stories in the past helped and healed you? How might you reshape the stories you live by?

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