My talented storyteller friend, Liz Weir, sent me the link to Kiran Singh Sirah’s stirring talk on the power of stories “to change the world.” If you’ve ever wondered why the ancient art of storytelling has such cachet these days, spend a quarter of an hour watching this inspiring video. Then think of your own life, your work, your family, your friends and how your stories just might start a ripple that changes the world.
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.
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.
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”
Sometimes Neil Gaiman writes or says something that sets my inner tuning fork humming. Come to think of it, he does that a lot. When I read the quote below, I thought of how different people look to us when we learn their stories.