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