The Power of Story in Dark Times

Once upon a time when my mother was a kindergarten teacher, a little girl walked into her classroom and brightly announced, “my grandma blew up in the space shuttle!”

What? The incongruence seemed humorous at first. Why on earth would a child say such a thing?

It was late January, 1986. The tenth mission of the space shuttle Challenger had just ended in a tragic explosion and the story had the nation riveted. Seven astronauts had lost their lives, including Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s choice to pioneer its Teacher in Space program.

Was the girl lying when she announced this clearly “untrue” story to her classmates? Was she showing off? Maybe. But as as my mom and I talked about the little girl’s life circumstances, another explanation emerged.

It turned out that the girl was grappling with the loss of her own beloved grandmother. I no longer recall the details of this child’s personal tragedy, but I’ve worked with children as a counselor for over twenty years, and I can make a few educated guesses about what she may have been experiencing. 

The adults in the child’s life may have been too consumed with their own grief to take the girl aside and give her a child-appropriate story about what happened to Grandma, but their furrowed brows and tears spoke of helplessness, loss and grief.

And it’s likely that the adults in the girl’s life were anxiously discussing the Challenger at the same time.

Television coverage was relentless, as harrowing news always is. Hearing about the crash of the shuttle with a beloved teacher aboard, the girl grasped its mysterious feel as truth about something in her own life that was bigger than she could understand. 

She needed a story about what happened to her grandmother, and she filled in the mysterious blanks with the tale of the space shuttle Challenger.

Human beings are storytelling creatures.

When asked in a Dappled Things interview how he justifies his work as a fiction writer, novelist Randy Boyagoda suggested a “friendly reordering” of the question.

Writers are always readers first, he said, and part of the interest in reading is linked to our common human nature as storytellers.

“If I were to ask you to tell me about your day,” Boyagoda pointed out, “you’re not going to tell me about how many calories you burned or how many steps you took. You will tell me a story. And that capacity, that desire to understand ourselves in narrative terms is deeply imprinted in who we are and how we interact with each other and the world around us.”

We understand ourselves in narrative terms.

I’ve seen this truth played out in my own life, but also in hundreds of interactions with children over the years. Parents divorce, children are placed in foster care, grandparents assume responsibility for children whose parents are addicted or incarcerated. And many times no one gives them a tenderly worded story to shape their understanding of what has happened.

One of the first questions I ask families concerned about their child’s mental health is what does he know about his story? What have you told her about her parents and her life?

In defending his vocation as a storyteller, Boyagoda gives us a viscerally relevant truth about humanity, young and old, in all places and times.

We turn to stories whether it’s a prehistoric cave in France or Spain or it’s something you’ve downloaded to your phone. We turn to storytelling to make sense of ourselves, of each other, of the world at large, and of our place in it.

Understanding our storytelling nature realigns our self-understanding and reorders our priorities. It can reveal children’s true identity to them no matter what circumstances brought them into the world, and it heals adults who attend to their own story in healthy, life-giving ways.

Storytelling fits our communal nature as well.

Novelist and playwright Laura Pittenger suggests in an interview with Haley Stewart that stories offer a bridge of communication to those who see the world very differently than we do. Consider the power of a movie or play as a shared experience, she says. “Whether you are sitting next to a politician or your mom or your kid or your partner, you are sharing that live experience with them. Church is much the same way:

Maybe you don’t walk away with the same ideas about what you saw, and the conversation outside the theater at the bar gets heated, but you shared something with each other, and you were in community – or communion – with other human beings.

Community bonds are weakened when we sit alone with our screens, Pittenger points out, but “when we leave our homes and turn off our phones, and share a couple of hours together in the dark, listening to what basically amounts to campfire stories, we’ve got a common ground from which to build.”

“That,” she adds, “is what stories can do in a dark world.”

The storytelling nature of human beings is one of many reasons I believe that the Christian Story, the five-act play unfolded in the Old and New Testaments, tells the truth about who we humans are and where we are headed. Its narrative has a place for each one of us and our lives take on fresh meaning as we learn to reshift our self-centered “egodramas” and re-center ourselves in the “theodrama” of God’s design.

In these dark times, reclaiming our nature as storytelling beings will be an essential aspect of healing our own souls and rebuilding community around us. Close Read’s Heidi White opened the Anselm Society Conference in the difficult lockdown season of 2020 by declaring:

[S]tory is the most powerful force in the anchor of the world. If our hearts are tethered to the Great Story, to the unfolding Story of the redemption of the world, we can never be moved.

To be part of the unfolding Story of the redemption of the world by uniting all our little stories with the Great Story is the Great Grounding in a time that rejects meaning, replacing it (at best) with mere politics. As noble and necessary as political efforts can sometimes be, they do not suffice.

The Great Story is the one that leads us Home.

How has the power of story shaped the journey of your life? I’d love to hear from you!

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You might also like The Tao or the Wow: How Ancient Texts Rehumanize the Heart and Go and Be Human with Close Reads: A Podcast for the Incurable Reader and if you’re a parent or grandparent, check out the children’s book reviews under Sparrowfare’s “Fledglingfare” tab at the top menu.

Looking for stories to rehumanize your heart? I highly recommend (once again) Jessica Hooten Wilson’s The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints.

Photo by Nong on Unsplash. Challenger in Transit courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.