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The Power of Our Stories

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion

The Power of Our Stories

Our stories define us. They affect our well-being, our relationships, our present and our future. They are vehicles of energy, vessels of possibility. They contain infinite potential and we can harness light and power from the experiences of our lives. Every ordeal we have suffered holds some treasure for us. Every catastrophe has stripped us of something and given us something. The nakedness, we know. The gifts are yet to be unearthed. According to Hannah Arnedt, the story reveals the meaning of what would otherwise be an intolerable event.

It takes time to harvest our experiences, to ferret out the events that are enduring and valuable, despite their consequences. It never happens by default. It happens by paying attention to the things that happen to us, mining them for meaning, consolidating the facts, and creating the story with its narrative arc, its climax, its resolution. If you are going to share it, it is kind to have a point to the story. That would be the gift you offer the listener. The value you bring to the exchange.

I sent this story out to my Museletter list this week. It was an old story, printed years ago in Marry Your Muse, but I had found the photo of the man I was talking about and I wanted to give them the gift of that image. I hit SEND and went off to do errands. When I returned home three hours laters, over 200 people had written to thank me. THAT is a lot of gratitude. And what does it say to me? That we are hungering for stories of meaning, of relationship, of conquering fear and doing it anyway. We need each others' stories. As Arthur Frank writes in The Wounded Storyteller, "To tell one's own story, a person needs others' stories." Here is my gift for the day...


I once started out in my Honda Civic on a cross-country trip through the small towns of America. I was a young photo-journalist, intent on interviewing ordinary people about their social and spiritual values. I left from upstate New York and headed south, excited and afraid at the same time. I drove right through Pennsylvania, lacking the courage to talk to anyone. My great idea didn't feel so great anymore. I had a yellow legal pad on the passenger seat and kept adding questions I wanted to ask people, and while my list grew longer, I grew shorter on confidence by the day. I drove through three more states without asking anyone anything.

Finally, I drove into a Waffle House parking lot in Virginia and pumped myself up. I would walk into the restaurant and look around. If someone made eye contact with me, I'd ask if I could interview them. I took along a copy of my book, Making Peace: One Woman's Journey Around the World, for the sake of credibility, and of, course, my yellow legal pad with all the questions.

One man in the back caught my eye when I came through the door. He was wearing a denim jacket and a Playboy baseball cap. He was the only one in the place making eye contact with me. So I approached him, said what I was doing, showed him my book, and asked if he had a few minutes. "Yes," he said, so I sat down. When I pulled out my pad of questions and focused in on the first one, I looked right into his eyes and asked, "Where did you get your values?"

He stared right back at me with a deep, vacuous look, and after several long moments, said, with a very southern, two-syllable drawl, "Wha-ut? "

I panicked for a second, and then heard a little voice in my own head whisper "Go first." Realizing I could be helpful by giving an example, I went first and told the story of how my mother always told me, when I passed a person on the street, to look that person right in the eyes, give them a big smile, and say "Hi," as friendly as I could. I told him it was difficult at first, since I was young and pretty shy, but then it got easier and now I do it all the time, because it's just part of me. "So being friendly is one of my values," I said. "And I got it from my Mom."

He kept nodding his head and chewing on his toothpick, until he finally asked, "Is it like this? When I was little and my daddy used to whup me when he'd get a drinkin', I'd go out on the back porch wantin' to cry and my grandaddy would be there. He'd look at me and say, 'Son, looks like you've got some big feelings goin' on. Why don't you get yourself a pad of paper and go down under that oak tree and write yourself some poems. That'll help you with them big feelings.' So I did, I wrote a lot of poems. I still do, when I need to work out my feelings. Wanna hear one?"

He recited a poem by heart, and then wrote it down in my journal. And we sat in that plastic booth for another hour and a half while he told stories he had never told to another person -- about his own anger, his big dreams, his pickup truck and double-wide, his drinking problem, his fear of being in love and messing it up like his dad. And every story he told me illuminated my own darkness, taught me something I never knew, and opened my heart to bigger love and deeper courage. He found parts of himself that had been long lost, simply because I was there to hear and receive them. And the same was true for me. When we left that restaurant, we were two different people from the ones who had walked in, alone and afraid.

What I learned that day was the importance of "going first." I didn't know, all those years ago, that the word leadership comes from an Old English word meaning "go first." It came like a whisper from the Muse, a nudging that caused me to open and share in such a way that the other person knew it was safe for him as well. My story was a gift to him. It was a tale of the passing on of values, wrapped in a few paragraphs, a little history, and some visual images. And yet, it was powerful enough to evoke his own history, his own creative wisdom, and the courage to speak of his fear and dark nights. And from that intimacy and vulnerability grew a new story, a universal story, the story of Going First.

I now know, from that one experience, that I can be the cause of a profound conversation, if I dare to go first, if I share something personal and meaningful, if I ask of another a question that matters, and listen like our lives depend on the answer. Since I value such conversations, and rely on them for my joy and sanity, I've been practicing this for many years now, learning more from others' lives than I could from any book. And it's because of that energy exchange, that vitality that rises up when two people open the pages of their hearts, share their wonderings, find their commonness. That is the energy of transformation, the power of story. It whisks us away from our sense of aloneness, draws back the veil between one and another, and rustles up, like a gentle wind, newfound feelings and age-old knowing.


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