Category Archives for The importance of storytelling

American politics: may the best story win

Photo by skeeze, via

Photo by skeeze, via

When the endless American election season got underway, I was absolutely certain Donald Trump would not even get out of the starting gate before being dumped. That was before it became clear the Republican party had so completely lost its bearings it couldn’t come up with a candidate who gave a fig about people and planet, let alone politics.

With New Hampshire having delivered Trump crowing rights, I’ve been giving even more thought than usual to storytelling. So much of it is going on, and so much of it is making me crazy.

Viewed purely as storytelling, the presidential election is a fascinating contest to see which story has the greatest appeal to the voting public. The Republicans are all about fear, anger, hatred, and big business. That story has always sold well. Think of the Romans and their gladiatorial spectacles, the horrors of the Inquisition, the witch hunts of Salem, the pseudo news from Fox, the dire warnings of the American gun lobby. Republican debate rhetoric harkens back to every demagogue who’s ever walked the earth. If their story wins, America’s in deep doo-doo.

In the Democratic camp, Clinton was promoting a cautious, status-quo, slightly-right-of-center story. Then along came social-democrat Bernie Sanders, a guy old enough to retire comfortably, passionate enough to keep working until his last breath. His success with young people who are widely assumed to have little interest in politics has forced Clinton to tweak her story and call for a more progressive tale than she really represents. The difference between the two of them is quantifiable, as you can read in a good piece in Salon. Sanders is progressive. Clinton occasionally flirts with it.

It’s all a matter of stories, and the whole world will be affected by the big story American embraces in November 2016. The best story for America and the world is one that embraces the environment, social equity, and compassion. May that be the winning story.

Uncertainty is the only certainty

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Animated version of Alan Watts telling the story of the Chinese farmer – animation by Steve Agnos; from Sustainable Human


Our best friend moves far away. Our house burns, leaving us with none of our material possessions. The man we knew we would love forever leaves us with a shattered heart.

In the immediate aftermath, we respond with despair. And then life intervenes. A business trip takes us to the city where our friend now lives. The insurance company settlement is enough to build the house of our dreams. A new love introduces us to experiences we would never have tried on our own.

Not every aftermath is so sunny, but what we always have is possibility. In this animated version of a story told by philosopher Alan Watts, the loss of a horse leads to a small herd. A son’s accident keeps him from being conscripted as a soldier. Each incident starts with a transforming event. But what at first seems like loss or gain can, over time, become the opposite.

When I traveled as a storyteller, I heard this story many times. The details changed with the teller, but the message was always the same: Uncertainty is the only certainty. Everything else is story material.

Only a good story can change minds

Photo by jackske, via morgueFile

Photo by jackske, via morgueFile

Years ago, Mike Connelly wrote the words below in a story called “Swinger Goes to Town.” It appeared in the January-February 2000 issue of Orion, and Utne Reader republished it here. I loved the story he weaves through it, about a cow named Swinger.

The story, and the whole piece, is one of the best arguments I’ve come across that we need to ratchet down the rhetoric and stoke up the stories if we want to change anyone’s mind…about anything.

Now if only I could remember that when someone gets me fired up about some issue.

Environmentalists need to tell more stories, not pass more laws. And they need to listen more closely to the stories of those they hope to change, and to realize that people who are forced to change don’t stay changed any longer than they have to. People can, and will, change themselves by the stories they tell, and by the subtle changes they make to stories they have inherited. We will not replace their stories. We have no business replacing their stories. We should show our manners and be grateful to have a place around their fire, and a turn to speak. ~ Mike Connelly, “Swinger Goes to Town”


A story brought him home

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

The children from the Seattle hospital’s burn unit were brought in on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Some were ambulatory and pushed IV poles. The youngest was 5, the oldest 15. The 15-year-old was burned over most of his body. He faced years of skin grafts and a lifetime of unwanted attention from people who would not know how to react.

I was having the same trouble people outside the hospital would have with these children, wondering where to put my eyes, how to reach beyond the disfigured surface to the spirit within. The stories I had chosen seemed puny in the face of their overwhelming needs.

I decided to tell them a story I had learned from Bill Harley called “The Freedom Bird.” It is the story of a hunter who shoots a magnificent golden bird, only to find that he cannot kill it, no matter what he does. It is the Freedom Bird, irrepressible, rising from any adversity. The violence often makes adults uncomfortable, but children love it.

Halfway into the story, I looked at the 15-year-old. In my mouth was a story of hacking, boiling, and burying. In front of me was a boy who had lived the bird’s fate, through fire, surgeries, and pain. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me.

The floor refused. I finished the story, tucked my tail between my legs, and slunk home. For the next week I practiced mental flagellation, knowing I should call the burn unit and apologize, putting it off until tomorrow.

The burn unit called first. One of the staff members wanted to tell me about the 15-year-old boy. He had been despondent, wishing he could die. The story changed his mind. Each time the hunter shot or hacked or buried the bird, the creature rose like the phoenix, until at last the hunter realized that he was trying to destroy an indomitable spirit. The boy decided he was the Freedom Bird. No fire or surgery or pain, no insensitive staring or comment would destroy his spirit. He would rise and rise again.

That boy taught me to trust the stories that call to me, to give them truly, knowing that they may heal or harm, but that I cannot predict how anyone hearing them will react. Life is in control, not me. A burned child may see the Freedom Bird as a reflection of the years of agony and reversals he faces. Or he may see in it the soaring of his own brave spirit.

I continue to learn to let go of the need to control. If we believe we can always choose the right stories and tell them at the right time, we are fooling ourselves. Everyone who hears our stories filters them through the lens of experience. We cannot know the hearts and lives of all our listeners. What we can do is tell with care and love, sharing the stories that touch our own lives, that make us laugh or cry or ponder. Release stories like butterflies, knowing they will fly their own crooked paths and land wherever they will.

[This essay first appeared in The Healing Heart: Communities as part of a longer piece, “Seven Lessons”.]
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