The Stories We Live

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2019
“Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”  
-Toni Morrison

“Hush little baby, a story I’ll tell…”  – from The Great Storm is Over, by Bob Franke

Dear Friends,

Stories have power—to shape us, to bind us, and to free us. They can carry us and guide us. And they can make us bearers of hope in the midst of the unbearable. 

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall integrates insights from neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology to explore the science of narrative in human experience.

Gottschall shows that our minds are “addicted” to stories, so much so that in the absence of a cohesive narrative, and in the presence of only extremely limited information, our brains inevitably respond to that painful dissonance by creating a story to explain what’s happening and to guide our response.

Once this has happened, it’s very difficult for our minds to change, a process which takes much greater effort than the almost effortless—but powerful—crafting of the (often false) story in the first place. So it matters what stories we allow to take root in our hearts.

We also have a potent capacity to transmit stories. When we “catch” a story, it transports our minds from our present contexts to inhabit a profoundly different reality. And when we share stories, they can spread like wildfire.

It seems we’re hardwired for stories. But what kinds of stories? Stories about difficult things, it turns out.

Studies (and streaming video data) show that humans demonstrate a tendency to gravitate toward those stories that include the greatest degree of—or potential for—conflict, pain, and danger.

Hearing this, I recognize my own tendency to become captivated by experiences of strife, suffering, and risk. And I know this is not limited to the stories I watch or read; I have this tendency in my life and actions as well. Focusing on the possibility for future harm keeps me wrapped in fear, and spreads that fear. 

Despite my best intentions, I know how easily I can be drawn into a story—and so into actions—focused on conflict, intensity, and harm. And despite the loneliness that results from letting these toxic stories find a home in me, I know I’m not alone in this. We could almost say that something in us seems to need a story that includes pain, fear, despair, and death.

And is this really so very strange? These qualities are inextricably part of the condition of the world. We can’t domesticate the wildness of our existence. We need stories that speak to the whole of our lives and potentials, not just the more comfortable or sanitized sides of humanity. A story that does not address suffering and risk has no power to hold us. 

But just because a story contains these elements doesn’t make all such stories the same. Where the story takes us matters.

Does it lead to liberation, or into deeper captivity? Does it open us to Love, or close us to relationship? The stories we tell matter, because the stories that make a home in us—that we tell and rehearse and tell again—become the stories we live.

Within and through every story, a fundamental question is waiting to be answered: In the presence of pain, struggle, and loss, how shall we live?

There are choices for us here. It seems it’s not enough to root out the death-dealing stories in our hearts. We must replace them with stories that lead to Love.

This is why I need you.

One of the essential purposes of our faith community is to cultivate and to carry an alternative story. As we practice our faith, our lives speak. And our lives—even more than our most beautiful words—are telling a story. As action after action shapes our lives, we could say that in some real sense, we’re made of stories.

The stories we tell together carry us, even as they enable us to make one another’s burdens light. As we discover new ways to share them once again, they create us anew—as beloved parts of a whole. If we who seek to live our faith in the Quaker tradition today are a People gathered, we are a People of the Story.

In this shared storytelling, we cultivate what we could call a narrative resilience—a capacity to sustain a living witness in the face of disruption. I will stumble again. You may grow tired. Many of us might even give up. But the communal story goes on.

So what is the story our lives are telling? 


Empire—a name for the manifestation of domination, separation, selfishness, and fear—tells us a story that sustains and makes possible the systems of exploitation, oppression, denial, and death that are plunging our world toward oblivion. This is a one-way, dead-end story, a story whose direction is the end of all of us. This is a story that captivates us with ease, deprivation, ignorance, excess, loneliness, and scarcity. When we’re in the grip of it, we transmit it unconsciously with every step.

But there’s another story—one about deep hope on the other side of despair, about a brighter shore beyond the darkening horizon, about a Love that conquers death. It’s a story that is wholeness, that calls forth right relationship, that treasures the fundamental interdependence of creation. It sustains the enduring Truth of experienced Life that shatters lies. It calls chain-makers to become chain-breakers, and turns the hearts of exiles toward home—no matter how long the journey still to go. It’s a story of a profound, tender, self-giving wildness that seeks to be born anew, as early Quaker Isaac Penington writes, to “grow…and be…and breathe…and act” in every heart.

When we let our lives speak from within that Story, we’re not relying on some promise of release in a far-off future—we’re participating in a new creation, here and now.

This is the Story I need your help to remember. This is the Story I need your help to share. It’s the Love we’re invited to bear witness to—with how we live and serve and walk today.

I hear stories are contagious.

in faith and service,

Noah Merrill
Secretary
New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers)

P.S.—The newsletter is later this month than usual, so we’re doing an edition bridging months. Please continue to send news items and submissions.

We’ve been working on a new online home for New England Quakers that we hope will help us cultivate, connect, and share the stories of Friends’ life and ministry in even more meaningful ways. We’d love to hear your experiences and insights about how it’s working for you, and how we might continue to grow.

And we hope the stories, news, and resources shared below will be an encouragement to you and your local meeting in the coming days.

Events coming soon

Upcoming Quarterly Meetings

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A Challenge from Bolivia

(Photo: Emma Condori)

The mountain in the background (above) was for many years snow-covered.

Bolivian Friend Emma Condori made a profound impression as she spoke about the climate crisis in her home country during a visit with Plainfield (VT) Friends Meeting. Rachel Walker Cogbill (Plainfield) shares what she heard about the crisis and steps to deal with it, on neym.org.

From Ramallah: A Reflection on Sessions 2019

Adrian Moody, head of Ramallah Friends School, visited a yearly meeting for the first time, in August—ours! He shares affirming words about his experience at our Annual Sessionsin the School’s newsletter.

Yearly Meeting Seeks Outreach Archivist

New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) is seeking a part-time contracted Outreach Archivist, supporting Friends and Friends meetings to better steward our living history. We are looking for an individual who is a Quaker or someone with strong familiarity with New England Yearly Meeting, and who is experienced and/or trained as an archivist. The Outreach Archivist will confer with the Yearly Meeting, quarterly meetings and monthly meetings on best practices for creating, gathering and transferring permanent records to the Yearly Meeting Archives at SCUA (UMass Special Collections and University Archives) in Amherst.

This contractor will collaborate with the NEYM Archives Committee as well as the staff at SCUA. The work will include contacting meetings who have not yet sent records to the Archives as well as offering workshops and trainings to meetings and other groups within Yearly Meeting.

The position is expected to range from 150 to 200 hours per year. If you are interested or know someone who might be, please contact Carol Forsythe, clerk of the Archives Committee, at archives@neym.org.

Smith Neck Friends Support
Quaker Records Project

The Smith Neck (MA) Friends Meeting presented the Dartmouth Historical & Arts Society with a $10,000 donation at Town Hall on Oct. 10 to help kick off the Quaker Friends Records Project, with all Dartmouth Meeting of Friends records dating back to 1699 to be transcribed, indexed, and made available to historical researchers on the DHAS website. Digital images of more than 6,000 pages of the Dartmouth Meeting records are already on the society website.

Racism: Let’s Talk About It

Susan Davies (Vassalboro, ME, Friends Meeting) writes about what it was like for her meeting to start talking about racism and white privilege, and offers some ideas for starting the conversation in your meeting in this article on neym.org.

Susan is co-clerk of the Challenging White Supremacy work group of the Yearly Meeting Permanent Board. The work group is available to assist; contact Susan or Fran Brokaw (Hanover, NH, Friends Meeting).

QuakerSpeak: Faith and Art

Maggie Nelson, Portland (ME) Friends and Yearly Meeting Young Friends Events Organizer, talks about how her faith informs her art in this QuakerSpeak video.

Missing Anything?

A number of items remained at Lost and Found at the end of Sessions in August—umbrellas, travel mugs, sunglasses, a guitar capo, and clothing, including a child’s sweatshirt. If you believe any of these items might be yours, please email the Office Manager. Items still unclaimed on December 1st will be donated to charity.

Photographing Worship as Ministry

Jean Schnell (Framingham, MA, Friends Meeting) has a new collection of photographs, “Meeting for Worship,” which you can view on her website. She also has written a blog about the project.

Friends Camp: Developing Leadership

Photo: Friends Camp

Friends Camp Director Anna Hopkins reports on the inaugural session of Rising Leaders, counselors-in-training. Living in the cabins with campers and a mentor counselor, Leaders became an integral part in the creation of the small cabin-family communities that are the building blocks of the Friends Camp experience. Read more on the Friends Camp website.

Growing Relationships Lead to
Restoration Project

Photo: Goodwin Church
Mt. Toby (MA) Friends visiting Black churches in the Amherst area discovered that Goodwin Church needed help. Goodwin Church is the oldest Black church in America, and its 1910 building requires major repair and rehabilitation. Mt. Toby Friends brought this to a meeting committee and then to business meeting, and approved a minute to co-sponsor fundraising for repairs.

A recent local benefit raised funds for the rebuilding; the work continues.

Rediscovering A.J. Muste

Friends at Annual Sessions 2019 may have seen a video about A.J. Muste (who once pastored Friends in Providence, RI), a leader in of the American peace movement from 1941 until his death in 1967. Bayard Rustin said that while he was an advisor to Martin Luther King, he never made a difficult decision without first talking about it with Muste.
See “A. J. Muste: Radical for Peace/Finding True North” by clicking on this link and entering the password Peter. For more information about this continuing project, contact the filmmaker, David Schock.

Video: Friends and Climate Witness

Eden Grace (Beacon Hill, MA, Friends Meeting) gave this year’s Swarthmore Lecture at the Woodbrooke Quaker Conference Centre In Birmingham England, this summer. Her subject was “On Earth as it is in Heaven: The Kingdom of God and the Yearning of Creation,” reflecting on the theological, spiritual and biblical grounding of Friend’s witness on the climate crisis and the Quaker response.

Video: This is Friends Camp!

Get a taste of life at Friends Camp in this video compiling one second of every day of summer 2019.

News of New England Friends sharing and acting from their faith:

Are you aware of Friends or Friends Meetings featured in the media? Email us so that we can share the news!

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