Recently I was at the Kennedy Center participating in an arts integration workshop. I had a wonderful time there, but the most interesting events happened over lunch. We sat at huge circular tables and got into the art, culture and importance of what we were all doing. This led to several heated discussions about race, religion and education. I don't mind heated discussions, in fact, I enjoy them as long as everyone is being respectful.
At one point, I was talking to a wonderful photographer about primary documents. I was explaining that since he uses the Preamble of the United States Constitution as the jumping off point for one of his arts activities he could check off the 'primary sources' box when looking at common core national standards for high school students. I said, "I mean, honestly, you don't get much more primary document than the Constitution."
He said, "What about the Bible?"
I said, "Don't ever tell a storyteller that the Bible is a primary document." (Well, actually, you can tell a storyteller that, but if you do, that's a good way to spend the next hour hearing versions of stories that predate the Bible.)
At which point he said, "Yes, but none of those other sources are true."
I said, "That depends entirely on who you ask. How we move through the world, the way we treat people and what we do is dependent entirely on the stories we believe."
"So," he says, "you're saying the Bible isn't true?"
I responded, "I don't think what people believe has any bearing on what is true. I didn't say we base our lives on true stories, just on the ones we choose to believe. We fight and die for the stories we believe whether or not they are true."
This conversation sparked a whole set of side discussions about perceptions of race. We talked about the house slaves vs the field slaves and the 'paper bag test' in the African American community. We learned about the troubles Muslims face not only in America but in their own countries from an immigrant, talked about how the Daughters of the Confederacy spent a generation redefining the Civil War so that it was no longer about slavery, but about the amorphous claim of 'state's rights'! We discussed the stories in Nazi German that led to Kristallnacht, and the stories that led to the ridiculous cries of 'Obamaphone' and 'Death Panels' and 'welfare recipients using their money to go on lavish vacations' and the rest of the claptrap that bogs us down as a society and prevents us from going forward. We talked about the 'resettlement' of Native Americans and the damage done to our young people over generations by close minded, terrified, bigoted, powerful people. We discussed how art can transform these conversations into something positive. We discussed how giving people new hope and new stories to challenge the decrepit ones of the past was something we needed to do.
Then, a couple of days ago I turned on my computer to the horrifying news that there was a gunman shooting up an elementary school in Georgia. My heart constricted. I found myself hoping against hope that this was not going to be another round of horror where parents were burying tens of children, and families were going to be growing up without mothers and fathers. Well, it turned out, that prayers, hopes and dreams all over the country were answered. What saved them? Stories.
Antoinette Tuff was in the office when that young man came in ready to kill and then be killed. She talked him down with stories. She told him the stories of her own life and anything she could think to tell him. She let the stories of their lives bind them together, and he got to see the world a little differently because she was sitting there. Because of their shared story, he didn't use the 500 rounds of ammunition he'd brought with him. Because of their shared story, nobody had to die that morning in school. Because of their shared story, no police officer was put in danger. Because of their shared story, she survived.
I am not a naive person who believes that if we just tell stories, everything will be better, but what has always astonished me are the people who believe that their understanding of the world is the only possible 'true' one; their needs are the only ones that count or matter, and their perception is universal. Being able to reach another person, speak to them, understand them, and hear them is a powerful tool. It is more powerful that weapons, because all weapons can do is destroy or cause fear, while stories can build and show us the way to belong. They are more powerful than violence because all violence can do is break, while stories can build. They are more powerful than hatred, because stories can build bridges across misunderstanding. of course, the opposite is true as well. You can use stories to cause hatred, build walls and keep people apart. If you do that, then the thing you must always fear is that your stories will encounter other stories. When the other stories make themselves known, they will begin to erode the basis for the fear, and many times the thing you built will come crashing down around you. This is why repressive regimes so fear the internet. Information and differing perspectives are dangerous to anyone who has been manipulating a story for their own benefit.
I have always believed that human beings are the sum total of the stories that they believe, but perhaps I have been too limiting. We are also the product of the stories we share.
Be Well and Happy Telling