Storytelling for Social Change

Humans are a fascinating species. Like all other animals we require food, water and shelter to live. However, unlike the rest, we have a special need. While our bodies crave alimentary sustenance, our souls, our essences, our very identities crave stories. What would our identity be like, or how would life be, without stories? Can you imagine human existence without the sharing of stories around a fire, at home, in school, at a bar, at work? There would be no reason for books, film and television. Say goodbye to music and visual art. Forget about our highly developed brains. We are a species that feeds on stories. In truth, and without a doubt, we need stories to live. They provide us with connection: to other humans, to nature, to the beyond and to our deepest self. They give us meaning: spiritually, culturally, even politically. (Think of how our politicians persuade us to vote in a certain way based on the stories they tell us.)

In my last Pachaysana blog posting, I talked about how education needs to adapt to our ever-changing, globalized world, and I hinted at the role of storytelling as a tool, saying “If we do not tell the stories of global interconnectedness, it is because they don’t feel real. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that we have all been thrust into an evolving global story: we are all characters bound together in time and space, struggling to resolve profound conflicts in a tremendously complex plot.”

In today’s posting, I make a plea to the human storyteller in us all. I do so not because I want us to become great narrators (although that sounds rather fun); instead, I appeal to you, the “storytelling animal,” because I believe that it is the key to bringing about sustainable social change. If we have indeed been thrust into a convoluted plot called globalization and its boundless events have mysteriously bound together in a knot of epic proportion, it seems natural to despair, for nothing makes sense. So what shall we do?

Find the story… create the story… tell the story.

Let me pause to offer a recommendation. I urge you to read Jonathan Gotschall’s The Storytelling Animal, in which he so delightfully examines, with a rather fun analysis, the human connection to story. He suggests that every aspect of our life revolves around story: from child’s play to our inability to rid ourselves of story even when we sleep.

(Children and dog playing in the community of Tzawata)

Where does this need for stories come from? We engage with stories to provide meaning, to find patterns and to build relationships. Some might say we need them to practice transforming conflict or to prepare us for the eventual overhaul of social structures. Martin Luther King Jr. told us his story, his dream, in which “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Is this now a reality? Not yet. But did the story make the cracks on the surface of seemingly impenetrable social structures? I believe so. More so than actual events, MLK Jr.’s story, the one he told as much as the one he lived, inspires us today.

So how we do we find, create and tell the stories that will helps us make globalization more digestible and transform its profound conflicts? I would say by taking advantage of what its incredibly positive attributes and inserting it into the natural process of storytelling. I fear we have disengaged from the process of finding, creating and telling stories. We have not lost our love or need for story, but our role in the process seems to be most closely connected to the end product: we are consumers of story. If story is to empower and inspire change, we cannot just listen, read and watch what others recount about that epic global knot. We must take deliberate steps to build new levels of consciousness of the knot, and that can only happen via engagement with the characters and conflicts of the story, and that will only happen through real human experience. This diverse global human experience can be accessed in traveling across the globe as it can be found in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods just 2 miles away. It now lives in the internet especially innovative social platforms. As soon as we rethink the meaning of community, it will become much easier to take advantage of globalization and change its story.

Let’s talk about this process, and think about how we can globalize our stories. First, it starts with observing how stories affect your own life. Observe life around you and witness the power of story, build awareness of just how much story penetrates your every moment: from gossiping over lunch, to watching sensationalist news, to listening to your favorite song, to using anecdote in an argument, to daydreaming about how you will perform in an important engagement later that day.

Second, stories come from interaction. Pay close attention to how stories are formed and you will notice almost endless interactions. Some may see this as dance or music, which is quite beautiful, but I try to boil it down to the basics. It is a dialogue (not necessarily spoken), an exchange of ideas and emotions shaped into action and expressed in any number of ways. The exchange involves multiple perspectives, usually involving 2 or more humans, but not necessarily. Those perspectives provide conflict, and with conflict we can begin to explore meaning, patterns and the essences of relationships.

(Standing atop the forest in Tzawata)

The third step is where this process becomes what some might call “work.” Inspired by the power of storytelling and fully aware that stories are born from relationships, we engage in a deliberate dialogue with the purpose of creating stories that will build a greater level of consciousness of our world. Story is the empowering tool. Dialogue is how we identify the conflicts in relationships. And by doing this as a deliberate, creative act, the knot is no longer such a scary thing. It is a fascinating phenomenon to be explored, understood, maybe even untied. Boiled down to the basics, through dialogue and storytelling, we understand our world by representing it metaphorically, which is what our species has been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, just rarely on a global scale.

This third step is what we at Pachayana call the Creative Dialogue, which considers our identity as story, a single narrative composed of multitude of tales, anecdotes and histories. It is a conscious engagement with the human adventure, yet doing our best to see that human adventure as a global wonder. The Dialogue uses a “game of mirrors” in which we see ourselves in the stories of others. We explore these stories and in doing so explore ourselves, which is all part of a fantastic journey toward connection to and consciousness of our collective story, and in doing so, we begin a real construction of our collective identity.

Sometimes it is easiest to think of this proposal as a quest, something that all humans crave, whether we journey individually, collectively or vicariously. Think of the great quest stories that continue to frame our spiritual identities, even though we did not live them. Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed and the shaman walk a path toward truth and we follow their journeys with reverence. These quests are remarkably similar and they shed light on the universality of humanity; however, we almost exclusively focus on their differences. In broad human terms, if we are seeking to understand the knot, we must look at Jesus’s venture into the desert for 40 days as a reflection of Buddha’s rest below the Bodhi Tree, which is also a reflection of the shaman’s passage into the forest. They are spiritual quests to find/define/prepare one’s self and connect with something greater than the quest itself.

(Shaman in Tzawata)

Our Creative Dialogue is also a quest, similar to what can be found throughout literature, drama and film over the last several centuries. Like the ancient stories of Ulysses, King Arthur and Don Quixote, or the modern books/films of Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, our quest is a story of discovery, growth and transformation. This process will be fun, yet challenging, forcing us to identify and overcome obstacles. We are not bound by fact in this journey, for our stories can be fictional. But, believe me, our fiction will carry more truth than any historical events could.

We will never solve today’s angry politics, troubled families, violent neighborhoods, and global inequality if we cannot connect to a shared human story. With that connection, with that consciousness, we can then transform those stories, and with them, transform ourselves.

It is the time to journey. Soon, you will hear the call to action, the chance to begin your quest. Will you accept it?

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