Storytelling

Storytelling is as old as the history of human interaction and as diverse as human cultures. In Jonesborough, Tennessee, master storytellers entertained thousands at the 39th annual International Storytelling Festival while everywhere parents enthrall their children with tales quietly told before bedtime. Whether fictitious or not, stories bring characters to life and implant images in the mind. Emotion always accompanies the storyline. Stories are complex and sometimes messy. Mark Twain is purported to have said, “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Life experiences are (re)lived in the retelling of the story. Story and experience commingle leaving indelible traces on each other (Kevin Bradt, 1997). After time, we are not able to tell the difference between the actual experience and the story we tell about it. Story becomes a way of knowing. It is how we know what is true.

A Jewish teaching story goes like this: “Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her, she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire.”

Therefore, stories are “more true” than facts (Annette Simmons, 2006). Story infuses cold facts with life and meaning. The power of narrative is recognized everywhere. Politicians attempt to get ahead of the story in order to shape the narrative. Military strategists in counterinsurgency operational environments have the almost impossible task of telling the story first in order to shape the environment. The United States Department of Defence’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is studying the impact of narrative on human neurology in an attempt to understand how to use story in the battlefield. Already at controversy because of the unlikely marriage of anthropology with the military, some will criticize DARPA for militarizing story.

Regardless, the bottom line is a growing recognition of the power and importance of story. No longer assumed to be simply a domain of children, storytelling is globally recognized as the most strategic means of communicating across cultures. Remembering the Upanishads or the Genesis narrative that begins with “In the beginning…” or your grandfather out in the country, some of you will skeptically and correctly respond, “This is new?” Yes, Dan Brown writes about the phenomenon in The Lost Symbol when he says that modern science directs us toward ancient wisdom.

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