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On Storytelling

This week, we're pleased to welcome back guest blogger Michael McRay. Here he shares his thoughts on the practice of storytelling. This past week, I attended a lovely session of storytelling at the Black Box in Belfast. Created and constructed by Pádraig Ó Tuama and Paul Doran, the event is called Tenx9 (as in ten by nine) and is structured around nine people sharing ten minute stories of their life. For this event, the stories must be true (in the “it actually happened” sense) rather than mere exercises in creative writing, illustrative metaphor, or symbolic parable. At Tenx9, real folks tell real stories. Tonight’s theme was “Things my parents never told me.” Calling upon the genres of comedy, poetry, and tragedy, storytellers imparted tales of their pasts. Some of these stories evoked roaring laughter and the applause that follows a well-told comedic line. Others elicited tears and a joyous sorrow that exists when the realization of the terrible brokenness of the world is coupled with an appreciation of the beauty found within, an awe of the “holy damned mess of the world’s suffering beauty,” to borrow a line from my brother’s blog.

We cannot, nor should we ever try to, escape from stories. As the twentieth century American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “the Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Despite the faulty science, she observes a truth: we are nothing if not our stories. With training in the discipline of history, I believe firmly in the forming nature of stories. Through our stories, we learn who we are, who others are, and how we exist in our orbit with them.

In my current understanding, we have two essential categories of stories: the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (to borrow Pete Rollins’ line) and the stories we tell ourselves about others. (Conversely, these ‘others’ do the same, but to them, of course, they are not ‘others’ and thus I did not create separate categories for these stories.) Both of these form our sense of identity. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves grant us a sense of placement in the chaos and order of the world. We draw on the stories of our past in order to inform our present.

I come from a family of storytellers. It is what we do. It is a rarity when table fellowship in my paternal grandparents’ home does not consist of my grandmother sharing stories of the family. The memories of who we were and are remain alive in the stories she tell us about us. By telling these stories, we keep them always in our vision and thereupon grant them significance and influence in the patterning of our days ahead. Thus, these stories exist both in our embrace of ‘the past that lies before us’ (to borrow John Paul Lederach’s phrase)[1] as well as in the proleptic notion of speaking of a reality that has not yet come to pass, one that we hope to live into, to invite into existence. In other words, we leap from our stories, while at the same time leaping into them. We tell ourselves a story we want to be true, a story we wish was true already. As I have mentioned elsewherePeter Rollins argues that this is the nature of Facebook. It is an idealized portrait of ourselves. Facebook is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, that we want others to believe actually represents who we are. And thus it is the story we ourselves want to believe is truly who we are. Trappist monk Thomas Merton tell us that only through contemplation can we strip away the layers of the false self and find our true identity in the union of love and dialogue with God. Thus, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can be instructive and guiding while at the same time being full of deceit and thus seduce us to be less than we should.

The stories we tell ourselves about others equally informs our sense of identity, for we have a proclivity towards identifying ourselves by what we are not in relation to who others are. “I am me because I am not you.” Here in Northern Ireland we see this clearly: the Protestant identity, so it seems to me, is significantly formed in opposition to the Catholic identity and vice versa. In my experience back home in the American South (though I know this observation is not unique to the South), some folks seem to understand their identity as a Christian in significant part due to their perceptions of Muslims. In other words, who I am (or my understanding of who I am) becomes greatly influenced by my understanding of who others are, or who they are not. Because of this, the stories we tell ourselves about others are dear to us, in much the same way that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are. If my perception of myself is contingent both on my stories of self and other, then I need to keep the other close so as to maintain my sense of identity. I need to know their story well so that I know my own, at least what my story is not. Thus the paradox: that while we often form our understanding of self by trying to extend the gap between ourselves and others, those whom we are not like, we are actually at the same time keeping those very people close to us, always within sight and sound, for our identity finds its place over against theirs. Thus, to let go of them is to let go of ourselves.

Granted, this exploration of stories constructed about others has just been traversed in a negative light. But certainly, these stories are not only formed in negative reaction to others. They do not only have negative consequences. This, however, calls us to the terribly important task of revision, of respect. The word respect comes from the Latin spectare meaning ‘to look,’ and thus etymologically, respect means literally ‘to look again.’ To respect others and their stories, then, means to take another look, refusing to let the stories we originally constructed of them form the final picture of their identity in our minds. Respect allows us to transcend fear, making it possible to embrace the “mystery of peace,” which Lederach says is found precisely “in the nature and quality of relationships developed with those most feared.”[2]

Respect therefore compels us to revision, to a rewriting of the story we had first composed. When we rewrite these stories, we now take into account the stories others tell about themselves. We allow our understanding of them to be influenced by their understanding of themselves. Then, if we are willing to wade into even more treacherous waters, we allow ourselves to hear the stories others tell about us. Just as we tell ourselves stories about others, so others do the same about us. We must always remember that we have a life in the imagination of the other.

This is the tremendous importance of what is known as revisionist history. For example, in most U.S. grade schools, state-structured curriculum informs students primarily of patriotic stories of the past, those that involve triumph, glory, and the creation of the ‘noble idea’ that was the United States. These stories are necessarily told from the perspective of the victors, for that is one of triumph’s many benefits. We form our understanding of who we are as Americans based upon these stories. But what happens when we begin to read the accounts of African slaves forcibly removed from their homes and brought to build the country we so often praise as the embodiment of freedom? What happens when we hear the testimonies of Native Americans butchered and expelled as “unfortunate albeit necessary casualties” in the wake of Manifest Destiny? Our understanding of who we are as Americans should be fundamentally altered by the stories these others tell us about who they perceive us to be.

In short, this is why an event like Tenx9 is so helpful. It is a space created for encounters, for the exploration of identity, a time of abiding in the orbit of others, where we exchange stories in the hopes of mutual edification. As iron sharpens iron, so we can sharpen each other through our storytelling. In the end, what choice do we have but to tell each other stories? They determine who we perceive we are and who we perceive others to be, and we cannot escape each other. As the Irish proverb says, “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

I welcome your thoughts.

[1] Lederach, “On Time: The Past That Lies Before Us,” in The Moral Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Lederach, 63.

Michael McRay is the author of forthcoming book Letters from "Apartheid Street": Christian Peacemaking and Occupied Palestine. He currently lives in Belfast where he is pursuing graduate studies in conflict transformation and reconciliation with Trinity College Dublin. 

The post origianally appeared in a slightly different form on Michael's blog.

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