The Truth In Story

Telling stories to our children may be the most important gift of all

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 58
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Telling our stories is at the core of human communication. While we have developed many forms of communication which carry our messages across vast reaches of space and time, "Story," in the oral tradition, still transports us into the essential realms of imagination as no other form can. Here Merna Hecht – poet, dramatist, and storyteller – describes the vital role Story still has to play in modern society. This year she was awarded the honor of being an Exchange Place storyteller representing the Northwest at the National Storytelling Festival, held annually by NAPPS (National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling) in Tennessee. She is also a Washington State Artist in Residence. and co-founder of the Seattle Storytellers’ Guild. To contact Merna, call (206) 463-5653.

Kari: Some say the purveyors of the news are the most powerful storytellers in the world today. Do you agree? Are newspeople storytellers?

Merna: There is a tremendous difference between news and Story. The news media informs the mind – in important ways, I don’t deny that. But storytelling is the kind of information that allows transformation. Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book called The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, and to me that’s what storytelling does – it informs the heart.

Kari: Is it the nature of the content that makes a story different?

Merna: Form and content. Story draws from wellspring-deep human symbols – archetypes – and puts those images into words. It’s an art form, a gift. And that’s different from the concretized words that give us information.

We really have two kinds of languages. One is Logos, rationality, which is essential to us. We have to be informed, we have to be conscious, and we have to be rational in order to discern our world.

But there is also the language of Mythos – imagination and spirit. We have to have both kinds of experiences to be whole human beings. In modern culture people can become very one-sided and therefore concrete – stuck, not open to their own internal journey or changes. They’re no longer availing themselves of that symbolic/heart part of themselves, because so much of the world comes to them factually and rationally.

Kari: What, then, is the role of storytelling in today’s culture?

Merna: Storytelling fulfills the same role it always has. One of the ancient healing qualities of storytelling is that it’s a relationship of spirit to spirit, soul to soul. For Story to touch one, one has to be open to that non-rational way of thinking. Children and people in traditional cultures do what adults in this culture are too uptight to do: they willingly suspend disbelief. They don’t have those strict boundaries between the imaginal and the real, so the symbolic has all kinds of wonder and meaning for them. In Story a glass of water can be a thing of great wonder – it can turn into a mule or a butterfly or anything. Everything has the capacity to transform, and objects take on a lot of magic.

There’s an interesting movement in psychology now called "object relations." The idea is that to be healthy children, and healthy adults, we need to live a symbolic life – objects need to have symbolic meaning for us. When children play, things in the outside world – their dolls, their teddy bears – take on symbolic meaning.

Kari: So Story is not far removed from play?

Merna: There’s a lovely quote from Martin Buber: "Play is the exaltation of possibility." In a way, that’s what Story is. It exalts what we can be, what we can become, our potential to transform. And when we lose that, we lose the ability to relate to the world in a meaningful way. Children who are not hooked into the media don’t tend to get bored. If they play in the natural way that children play – and we all need to play – then the world is full of meaning. And a life well-lived is always in the context of meaning.

Those things which are most universal to us – life passages, journeys – are what Story is about. Journey involves the inevitable emancipation of child from parents, going out into the world. When you think about it, most fairytales, folktales and myths are metaphorically about birth, puberty, marriage, aging and death. So Story is a kind of communication that evokes or gives meaning to our lives.

Story also helps to bond the culture. Until recently, cultures had a core of stories in an oral tradition. People grew up with stories told to them. They were an open audience, so there was immediate rapport between them and the teller. That’s the only way storytelling can work, and we are close to losing the breadth and depth of this tradition, the ability to engage and be engaged.

Over the last twenty years I’ve seen increasing numbers of "destoried" kids in the audiences, kids who have grown up immersed in media. Kids who are very media- and computer-oriented, who are raised with an emphasis on rational thought and linear thinking – which media fosters – cannot always connect with stories. That is tragic. A closed, or rational, or overly entertained mind forgets how to participate. Storytelling, by its nature, is not rational. And the more children don’t involve themselves in the world in imaginative or symbolic ways, the less they’re able to connect with Story, to grow with it and learn from it.

Kari: Do you see that as a direct outcome of television and film, where images are handed complete to children?

Merna: Absolutely. It’s absolutely the effect of modernity – media, television, a push-button culture that doesn’t promote imagination. And that really concerns me. It’s the difference between amusement and engagement: things are done to us or for us, rather than us participating in them. We become very passive; we’re entertained rather than engaged.

I think one of our biggest problems, in this Age of Communication, is a severe communication disorder. The lifeblood of relationship is communication – dialogue and engagement. We’re under an incredible media onslaught that doesn’t give us the opportunity to participate, and that disengages us from community.

Kari: Many people share your criticism of media, but they won’t necessarily give it up. TV in particular plays too many roles in our society.

Merna: But, there have to be people like me: I’m hardline against media. People say "That’s crazy! It’s here, you have to take it for what it is and use it positively." I understand that and support that. But I am kind of a dinosaur – I have never owned a TV. That puts me in about 1 to 2% of Americans. So for kids, I’m a cross-cultural experience. There are things they can’t talk to me about because I don’t watch TV – and that’s good. That means they have to talk to me about other things.

Kari: What do we lose when children grow up without that ability to connect, engage, and imagine in the way you were describing?

Merna: Everything! I think the loss of storytelling is dangerous to modern culture, because what happens is a tremendous shift in values. Without storytelling, children begin early to value information over wisdom. Facts over feeling. Mind over heart. They begin to depend on external sources to inform them, and they don’t realize how much there is inside of themselves to tap for their own growth.

If a child has an intact family and good self-esteem and all the things you would wish for her, then of course TV is not as harmful – she’s still growing up in community and family and all of those things that make us good citizens and good human beings. But if children don’t have those things to mitigate the effects of media, they become very passive.

Part of the dysfunction of this culture, for example, is that we don’t give adolescents any formal, storied rite of passage – things to identify with that move them through that journey from childhood to adulthood. We just put them out into the dark with no place to go, no light at the end of the journey, without any initiation rite or hero or heroine to identify with, and hope they make it. Mid-life crisis is the same kind of transition – you’re no longer a young person and you’re not yet an old person. In our culture we’re each left to struggle alone with this.

Kari: Perhaps many of the things adolescents and people in middle age do which seem full of risk or denial – or self-destruction – are attempts to create personal rites of passage. Or, conversely, perhaps they are attempts to avoid the pain of it, and the loss of the known.

Merna: It’s interesting that in materially impoverished cultures a lot of the values and traditions I’m talking about are still much more intact. There is tremendous underlying impoverishment in a culture that loses the traditional "glue" linking generation to generation.

Kari: Much of what you’re saying about the value of Story seems to involve personal empowerment.

Merna: Story is, and always has been, a telling of good over evil. Not in a didactic or religious way – it’s just the human condition. We want goodness over evil, light over dark, strength over weakness. There’s always that opposition in Story.

But in traditional forms, Story isn’t built on a flimsy or superficial "happily-ever-after." It’s built on power, the kind of empowerment you’re talking about. It’s built on interdependence – people surviving their particular ordeals by getting help from others. Sometimes the helper in Story comes in the form of an animal, which is really important because it connects us to the larger world. An animal is the blind instinct to trust your own way. Sometimes the helper is a beggar or someone in need – that in us which is impoverished, which we need to give to. If you help the beggar you often succeed.

So Story, by its traditional nature, suggests power with. We become whole and keep our power by sharing what’s strong in us with others, and then getting it back as a gift from them. "Giftedness" in stories is always interdependent, and not just people to people.

Another important thing Story does is give us experience of the Other. When a good storyteller stops being bounded by his or her ego, and feels the anguish or joy or struggle or fear of the characters, then the audience feels it, too. In South Africa or Nicaragua, for example, where people are really struggling, sharing personal stories creates an immediate sense of real human heroes and heroines that we can begin to identify with.

Those human moments where you can feel the suffering of other people – where you can put on the shoes of one man or one woman or one child – lead to what I call "awareness, concern, action." When you become aware, then you begin to have compassion and feel concern, and out of that you take action. You can’t really be an informed citizen and want to help others until you can wear their shoes.

Kari: You mentioned Story in connection with healing earlier. How can Story do that?

Merna: Well, the rational mind keeps things objective, outside of us. Story brings what’s external to us inside and makes it subjective; and at the same time it objectifies what’s inside of us, takes it outside. In other words, if you are in deep anguish because you’ve lost somebody you love, you can feel terribly lonely inside of yourself. But if you hear a story about a mother seal who lost her pup, and hear described in the story the distant moan of her weeping, you begin to identify with her. Your grief becomes more objectified, and it becomes easier to bear. In that way, Story prepares us. Life is not happy. It’s full of loss and gain, of leaving and returning, and Story is also full of that. It makes the human condition meaningful and bearable, and it puts us in community. It gives context to our lives, and yet it also allows for wonder in the outside world. Story can help us develop resonant relationships with the world. It can make the outer world much more rich and subjective, for both children and adults.

Over the years, I’ve told stories quite a bit at the King County Detention Center. These are incarcerated street kids, age ten to twenty, who’ve been arrested over and over but are too young to go to prison. They wear uniforms and live in a totally locked, high security facility. And I tell stories to them. Afterwards, the teachers and the guards always say "My God! How do you do that? What are you doing?" And I always say "It’s not me, it’s the story."

Kari: What are the teachers and guards seeing?

Merna: The kids are focused. At first when I go in, they’re so insulted they can’t stand it. "A storyteller!? What’re you going to tell us, The Three Bears?" Then I tell them these really powerful stories – hero stories – where some young woman or man is in some kind of terrible ordeal, but they succeed by using their wits and they make it. These kids are living by their wits, so they’re just riveted to the story. It’s not me, it’s what storytelling does. It allows these kids, for a brief moment, to get out of the shackles of their lives and move, in their own imaginations, to somewhere that feels good to them. Story can free us in that way. On a few occasions I’ve seen some of the younger kids actually sucking their thumbs – and most amazing of all is that they get no flak from the older kids. Not a word!

Kari: I tell bedtime stories to my niece and nephew and usually they choose the main character and the situation. My nephew holds up one of his stuffed animals and says "Tell about when Fred the Flying Seal met all the whales" – and if I’m not getting the story quite right they freely direct me! But that’s an intimate situation. Is it possible to do that with a crowd of kids?

Merna: Oh, yes. I never do it when adults are present, but with just kids I make up stories all the time, or kids get to make up their own situations to act out.

When I tell stories in school classrooms, the first thing I do is push the desks back and have all the kids sit on the floor in a circle. A lot of times I get material for the dramas we do from the kids, themselves. These are often 5th graders or younger, and even at that age kids will inevitably bring up drugs, love affairs, sexual abuse, divorce – it’s just remarkable. That’s the media. That’s their world. I don’t censor it, but we do make all kinds of changes in it. I put things in older contexts – suddenly the scene becomes a castle court, or a desert, or a boat that’s lost at sea – but it can still be the same, modern issue. And I have rules about weapons.

Kari: No Uzis, but scimitars are okay?

Merna: Exactly. And I don’t allow any TV or movie images. I say, "Think of this as a workout for your imagination."

Kari: Would you say the old-world stories and fairy tales from our various ethnic heritages are still alive and applicable?

Merna: Absolutely. Stories that have come to us from the oral tradition without being altered a lot through the millenia still work with modern children or urban children quite powerfully. And Greek myth is pretty pure – it’s still very powerful in terms of strong heroes who overcome great obstacles and kill evil monsters and slay the darkness. Kids are into that. That’s what a lot of the movies they love are about, like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. It’s an old folk motif.

But some stories – like those from the Victorian era, and some of Grimm’s fairy tales – got caught in a web of old cultural values when they were written down, and they don’t work very well. Someone once said, "Ink is the embalming fluid of poetry."

Kari: What hope do you see for our "destoried" culture?

Merna: I see a lot of hope everywhere. There’s a growing resurgence of storytelling all over the country. People are hungry for it! People are softening, opening up. They’re realizing that there’s not a lot of time left to re-integrate certain sustaining values, like compassion and understanding. That movement is happening as we speak. People are awakening to some of the destruction that we’ve done individually, in the family, communally – there’s a lot of language in the culture right now about addiction, abuse, pollution. Life is hard on the planet for everybody. People obviously are becoming aware of the need to change, from a personal to a societal level.

I think certain revolutions – that is, re-evolutions – need to take place in order to sustain and perpetuate things that are fully human, and that will promote the wider survival of communities and countries and, therefore, the planet. Neighborhoods and communities that are intact contribute to an intact planet. Working with children, I feel a lot more hopeful than I would if I did some other kind of work – but not just hopeful.

Kari: Now that I think about it, we tell each other stories all the time about trips, work, little adventures, our pasts. That’s not exactly Story…

Merna: But storytelling is, by its nature, personal. You feel better when you tell me your personal story. You don’t feel right when we communicate just intellectually or superficially. Tell me your anguish or your joy; I’ll tell you mine. Story opens all that up, whereas mass media and that other kind of communication – information, facts, rationality – oppresses our potential to tell our truths. That’s why Story has resonated for so many centuries: it’s the difference between facts and truth. I mean, what’s truth?

Kari: I think of it as the matrix around the facts. Facts can be used all different kinds of ways, but they have no value in themselves.

Merna: I’ll tell you a very abbreviated version of a story I just love. It’s an old European story that’s gone everywhere around the globe, and it’s about truth as a storyteller sees it.

An old king is happily married to a beautiful queen, and they’ve lived a wonderful life in a castle that’s extraordinary – delectable food, lovely princesses and princes, and yet the king isn’t happy. All of his long, royal, intelligent life he has quested after truth, and he’s never found it. Finally he dresses himself as a common man, puts on a traveller’s cloak, and tells his wife, the queen, that he must go away and seek truth, and she gives him her blessing.

He goes off and he sojourns long and hard and finally, at the top of a very craggy, high, isolated mountain, he comes to an old and broken down hovel. And he meets a woman – she is ugly and has long, stringy white hair, gnarly teeth, and long crooked fingers, and she is bent over. But when she speaks, her voice is music – wind in the trees, bird songs, harp strings. He knows that he’s found her: Truth.

He stays with her for a year and a day and learns everything he’s thirsted to know. And when he leaves to return home he says, "Truth, my good woman, you have given me what I have longed for all of my life, the greatest gift of all. Tell me, is there anything I can do for you?" And she says to him, "Yes, when you go back to the people and they ask what I, Truth, looked like, please tell them, won’t you, that I was young and beautiful?"