Category Archives for Meaning of stories

Storytelling for a peaceful world

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.


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.

Storytelling and social media

Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction sounds like a book I’d put at the top of my reading list. It’s hot off the press, just released by Routledge in November 2011 so I immediately surfed over to Amazon to see if I could buy a copy. Alas, the academic publisher has not embraced the digital world. It’s not available for e-readers, and even with Amazon’s discounting, the hard copy would set me back $111.37 before taxes. I’ll order it via interlibrary loan, but if your book budget is higher than mine, don’t wait.

For anyone as intrigued by storytelling in social media as I, this new work by Ruth Page sounds like a fascinating exploration of the phenomena. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s description on the Routledge Web site:

The online stories are profoundly social in nature, and perform important identity work for their tellers as they interact with their audiences – identities which range from celebrities in Twitter, cancer survivors in the blogosphere to creative writers convening storytelling projects or local histories.

Stories and Social Media brings together the stories told in well-known sites like Facebook and lesser-known community archives, providing a landmark survey and critique of personal storytelling as it is being reworked online at the start of the 21st century.

Reading that sent me in search of more about Ruth Page, and I found her Digital Narratives blog, with its wealth of observations and insight. Page is a lecturer in Birmingham, focusing on digital narrative and the impact of gender on storytelling. Her research has uncovered differences between the way women and men tell their stories through social media and also in the ways celebrities use Twitter.

A review of Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction for Science Daily quotes her:

The study shows an increasing trend for using ‘expressive language’ in Facebook (for example, for emphasis or to project friendliness), which is being led by young women aged between 19 and 25 years. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, the style used by young women was later picked up by other women, especially those over 40 years old, and by teenage boys; but not by men.

The role of young women as leaders of the changes in the styles of storytelling in social media is significant as it is at odds with other statistics that show that they are under-represented as the developers of social media sites and software.

Page also looks at the way celebrities use social media. While many use it only to promote their work, others, such as Jamie Oliver, make a more personal connection with followers. Again from the Science Daily review:

At the time I was looking at Twitter for this book, he was promoting his Food Revolution tour in the US. Many tweets are telling the Followers to join the campaign, watch a programme, try a recipe etc. (more or less selling his products) but all of that is countered by his efforts to engage with the followers by writing back to them, telling snippets of his family life and so on.

I’ve embraced social media. Though I’ve sampled a lot of others, I’ve settled on a handful: WordPress (for blogging), Facebook, and Twitter. I’m a fan and regular user of which makes it easy to share links in a curated form that is like an online newsletter. I know that the choices of what I share through those social media outlets tell my story. They don’t tell everything, of course, but they leave a trail of breadcrumbs that are easy to follow. They reveal a lot about what is important to me and how I see the world.

The turnaround for me was blogging. I avoided it for a long time because it seemed narcissistic. Besides, with the number of blogs exploding daily, I couldn’t see the need for yet one more.

An eight-month trip to Australia changed my mind. Blogging became an easy way to respond to the “tell us what you’re experiencing” requests from friends. I could post to Crossroads and send out a brief e-mail. Friends who really did want to know about our trip could read it. Everyone else could ignore it.

I was hooked. As someone with a passion for storytelling and a definition of it that is broad and inclusive, I came to appreciate the possibilities of telling our stories online in a way that mirrors another quote from Ruth Page in the ScienceDaily review:

“Although there is a lot of talk about how digital technologies will lead to the end of the book, social media shows us that storytelling remains a key way of how we make sense of each other.”





Telling a new story

Lips on face stone sculpture

Lips on face stone sculpture, photo by

David Korten’s writings often move me. They always make me think. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, a publication that always poses solutions instead of just pointing out problems.

In the August 8, 2011, online edition, he throws out a challenge to culture workers. He calls on those in media, education, religion and the arts to use their influence to tell a new story. He writes, “For better or worse, you are engaged in crafting and propagating the cultural stories that serve either to legitimate the devastation the old economy causes or shine a light on the possibilities of the new economy.”

Whether we stand in front of an audience or work in the broad field of organizational narrative, storytellers bear a responsibility that is, at the same time, an exciting opportunity. Our stories can shore up a status quo that keeps the world teetering on the brink of global disaster. Or they can engender a sense of possibility that will lead us to something sane and life-affirming.

I’m reminded of the four levels folklorist Barre Toelken once told me characterized Navajo storytelling. That was many years ago, and my memory has likely shifted the explanations to fit my own sense of the impact of storytelling. But roughly, these are the four levels:

  • Entertainment: The first task of the storyteller is to capture the audience’s imagination.
  • Education: Once imagination is focused, learning can begin.
  • Spirituality: Here the possibility of transformation begins.
  • Witchcraft: Only a shaman can safely tell stories at this level because they unleash forces that cannot be contained in less skilled hands.

From many directions we hear stories that seem to have skipped right over the third level and are wreaking havoc on our environment, economies, and family lives. They are told by culture workers who have sold their talents for pieces of silver, skilled liars whose arguments play out in election campaigns and corporate marketing.

Korten’s charge to artists is one storytellers can answer:

“Talented artists can help us see beauty, meaning, and possibility where it may otherwise escape our attention. They can take us on an imaginary journey to a future no one has yet visited to experience possibilities we may not have imagined. Our movement needs the contribution of millions of artists devoted to liberating human consciousness.”

The YES! essay is based on the 2nd edition of David Korten’s important and encouraging book, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth.

Medicine circles back to stories


Doctor and patient in City Hospital Tuberculosis Division, 1927 (Item 2721, Engineering Department Photographic Negatives (Record Series 2613-07), Seattle Municipal Archives, from Flickr Creative Commons)

The invention of the stethoscope spelled the end of story-based medicine. That claim caught my attention when I was listening to White Coat Black Art on CBC. Dr. Brian Goldman, the show’s host, was interviewing Stanley Reiser, a medical historian.

In his 2009 book, Technological Medicine: The Changing World of Doctors and Patients, Reiser wrote, “Before stethoscopes, the coin of evaluation was words—the doctor learned about an illness from the patient’s story of the events and sensations marking its passage.”

Diagnoses were often made via letters. Patients wrote detailed descriptions of their symptoms, the remedies they had tried, and their emotional state. Not every physician was comfortable with this. Some complained of patients’ inabilities to accurately describe their illnesses. Others chided doctors for subtly guiding the narratives and missing the correct diagnosis.

In 1816 René Laennic, a 35-year-old French doctor, invented an instrument that would allow him to listen to a woman’s chest without violating her modesty. The stethoscope quickly became popular and “took the mantle of illness out of the hands of patients and placed it in the doctor’s orbit.” (Reiser)

When Dr. Goldman interviewed him for White Coat Black Art, Reiser said the stethoscope “led to a seismic shift in how doctors evaluated illness and their relationship with the patient, which changed as they became more interested in the evidence from the body and less interested in the evidence from the story.” The new technology “made doctors more interested in the physical findings of disease than in the life of the patient.”

Reiser is concerned that over-reliance on technology has lessened physicians’ openness to the patient as a whole person rather than a collection of symptoms. But there’s a movement toward storytelling in medicine, generally referred to as “narrative medicine”.

Narrative medicine is, in many ways, a return to pre-stethoscope days. Dr. Rita Charon, who coined the phrase in 2000, describes it as “medicine practised by someone who knows what to do with stories”. In “What to do with stories: The sciences of narrative medicine”, she writes, “Whether sick or well, the reader of an illness narrative is summoned by the author to join with the teller—to form community that can combat the isolation of illness.” [Canadian Family Physician August 2007 vol. 53 no. 8 1265-1267]

Illness is a lonely journey, particularly when it’s chronic or when the impact is life threatening. It’s lonely for the person who is ill and for those who are caretakers. Narrative medicine takes this into account, placing the illness in the context of a life rather than the narrow confines of symptoms.

Stop the Newspeak stories

When the U.S. FedBizOpps (Federal Business Opportunities) Web site advertises a workshop entitled, “Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts”, it’s time to face up to the shadow side of storytelling. Since the workshop took place February 28, 2011, I figure the workshop URL may disappear any time. So let me assure you that even if the link is broken when you click on it, this workshop is for real.

The full title was “Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts.” The hosting agency was the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Here’s the description:

This workshop is intended as a precursor to exploring the neurobiological mechanisms which undergird narrative processing so as to establish fertile ground for connecting our understanding of the neuropsychology of stories with models, simulations and sensors salient to security concerns. To this end, the workshop will focus on surveying theories of narrative, understanding what role they play in security domains, and establishing the state of the art in story analysis and decomposition frameworks.

If you remember Orwell’s 1984, you may recognize an unnerving similarity to the Ministry of Truth and its Fiction Department. One of the first things the novel’s government had to do was normalize a new language. Newspeak turned ordinary stories on their head.

Wandering through the DARPA Web site, where war is normalized as nothing more alarming than business strategizing, I got to thinking about George W. Bush on “weapons of mass destruction”, Sarah Palin putting cross hairs on the districts of pro-health care reform Democrats or the Harper government’s decision to scrap the long-form census because it was “coercive and intrusive”.

What all three examples have in common is a defective story with serious ramifications. Soldiers and civilians continue to die in Iraq. Palin supports powerful forces working to keep Americans from having universal health care. The Harper government’s decision to scrap the longer census means there will be inadequate information on which to base policy and funding decisions. When questioned about their actions, Bush, Palin and Harper all created new stories to explain how right they were.

George Orwell explained how it works in his appendix to 1984, “Principles of Newspeak”:

When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.

I believe in the power of story but acknowledge its knife cuts both ways. We owe it to our children and to the seventh generation to avoid Newspeak, to tell stories that shed light, that inform, that inspire and that, ultimately, lead to a better world.

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