Storytelling

We tell stories. It is part of how humans make sense and order out of their lives. While many of our stories spring from something that might be called objective reality, the narratives that we create are seldom free of subjectivity, that is, our interpretation of events.

Take any particular event. Ask three different people to describe it. You will most likely get three different stories.  Where they disagree, we sometimes conclude that one person is right and the others are wrong. Sometimes we may be able to recognize that each person is each telling the story from their individual perspective.  Can truth be found by focusing on what the three descriptions have in common? Maybe. What happens when person four comes along?

It is interesting to try to get people to describe an incident using only factual information, no evaluative words at all.  If you haven’t tried this, give it a whirl. It is often harder than we think.

One of the benefits of meditation is training the mind to focus, most particularly, to focus on what really is.  So often, an event happens and we “see” not only the facts, but an entire overlay of our own creation. Too often, we do not know the difference between what really happened and our story about what really happened.

Take an example of Penny and Janet, two members of a congregation. As Penny arrives at church one Sunday morning, she see Janet out front pulling a few weeds from one of the planters.  Penny greets Janet cheerfully… but gets no response. As she continues inside, Penny’s brow furrows. Why is Janet mad at me? Then she sees Juan and that reminds her of the hospitality meeting last week when Penny and Juan had advocated a different position than Janet. Penny and Juan’s position had prevailed. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time but…

Juan greets Penny and asks how she is.  “Well, I was fine, but apparently Janet is mad about last week’s hospitality meeting and now she is giving me the cold shoulder.” Juan commiserates adding, “I’m surprised Janet would be so petty.”

It never occurs to either of them that the only “fact” is that Janet did not respond to a greeting. All the rest is story. And it is story that could have done harm, had it spread further. Fortunately, a more accurate story emerges before the tale goes any further.  In worship, Juan catches Penny’s eye when, during Joys & Concerns, it is shared that Janet’s mother was hospitalized earlier that morning. The single fact of Janet’s non-response now becomes part of the different story in which Janet, lost in thought regarding her mother’s health, was loving tending the garden. Janet is no longer a petty source of irritation, rather she is a caring person deserving of compassion.  Interestingly, nothing in or about Janet changed to cause that transformation.

We will tell stories. We will create meaning. But let us discipline ourselves to ask the question, what happened, what really happened? And let us not confuse our subsequent interpretation with reality.

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One Response to Storytelling

  1. George Hooper says:

    Rev. Kathy, this is a serious problem. And what makes it worse is that fact-based reality is consistently being undermined and eroded. Fundamental Christian churches encourage and validate “magical thinking.” It’s no wonder that a sizable segment of our society denies the consequences of climate change, polluting the Earth, shutting down the government, and more.

    When your “magical thinking” reality is that your God is awesome, and will never ever let anything really bad happen to you( and your tribe), then warnings of peril fall on deaf ears.

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