“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories." – Ursula K LeGuin
Since ancient times, people have told stories. Some stories have a lesson for the listener, perhaps providing guidelines about how to live a “good” life. Other tales – those which speak of overcoming adversity and heroic deeds undertaken for the benefit of others – serve as a source of hope and inspiration, encouraging the listener to step beyond their perceived limitations and seize the greatness of their being. Stories are passed down through the generations from old to young, strengthening connections within and between families and cultures and communities, and establishing bonds between those who are present and those who have moved on, perhaps even to other lives. At times, a story exists purely for entertainment to offer an experience of enjoyment through its comic plot or humorous use of language. And of course, there are the stories of darkness, of pain and violence and tragedy and sadness perhaps, reminding us of our own shadows and elements of life for which our training in logic and reason leaves us ill-prepared.
“Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Consequently stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story – Jesus did it. He called his stories parables.” – Janet Litherland
The power of stories
Stories are powerful because they reach us somewhere deep inside. ln stories, the abstract and the incomprehensible can become concrete and meaningful, the theoretical can become practical, the scientific can become more human. Stories can turn a dull lecture into a magical adventure. They can transform potentially-mundane events into moments of pure bliss. The monotonous drone explodes into a song of power and poetry. The familiar tone of a trusted other soothes the restless child through the transition from wakefulness to the place of dreams and rest.
“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.“ – Robert McKee
Telling our own stories
All of us are storytellers and each one of us tells our own story, becoming increasingIy convinced of its truth with each re-telling. I can tell my story as a tale of woe in which I have been ill-treated and miserable ... or I can tell my story as a tale of success or love or joy. As the teller of my story, I can decide what my story is and what it is not, and I can change it with each telling. For any person to tell their entire story would take infinitely longer than it took for them to live that story. So we choose where to start and which chapters to include and where to place the emphasis, with the usual result that the story we tell is the “same old story” – the one that our parents and grandparents told from before we were born, the one that our friends and our neighbours and teachers have told, the one that our leaders continue to tell, the one which the media has scribbled over the authentic stories of our lives ... The story I tell is consistent with the story I’ve been told ... and it feels comfortable to use the same turns of phrase and exclude the same details and reach the same ending as I have done a thousand times before ... Perhaps, I do not tell my story to any apart from myself. Perhaps, my story is too boring or too painful or too alien ... and perhaps, that means that I am too boring or too painful or too alien ... or perhaps, that too is nothing more than a story, a commentary I have constructed to anchor me in my familiar world.
“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are power/ess, because they cannot think new thoughts.“ – Salman Rushdie
Telling our child and youth care
It is common for us as child and youth care workers to tell stories about how hard we work, how little we earn and how undervalued we are. We continue to tell the stories about how little has changed and that nobody seems to care. We might begin to believe the stories that we make no discernible difference in the world ... We need to tell some different stories. We need to tell and hear the stories of greatness ... of optimism ... of success ... of progress. It is up to us to tell our stories and to use these stories to nurture and inspire. Every child and youth care worker has a story or a hundred stories or a thousand, and even in our silences, we tell our stories. Let us think carefully about the stories we wish to tell – both those we tell to ourselves and those we share with others. Let us recognise the power of stories, not only in teaching our children and calming them at bedtime, but as a means for creating the lives we yearn for and the world in which we would like to live.
“The destiny ofthe world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.“ – Harold Goddard.
This feature: Winfield, J. (2010). Once upon a time ... telling out stories. Child and Youth Care Work, 28, 1. p. 31.