Our lives are framed by stories. Stories that we read, hear and see; and stories that we tell – about what we know, what we see, and what we feel. Yet increasingly over the last several years stories have come under intense scrutiny. In more and more cases, stories are weaponized – by the story itself, or in the response. People are shouted off the stage while telling their version of a particular story; in August Salmon Rushdie was stabbed ten times before he could even get started. Stories are truncated, cherry-picked, redacted, red-lined and distorted – usually to meet an agenda or to reinforce what the audience wants to hear. Fake news is a neologism that surfaced a few years ago, and now it is invoked with disturbing regularity. Too many people believe only what they want to read and hear, and either discount or dismiss the rest.
In the West, we are receiving tragic and heart wrenching stories from the devastating war in Ukraine, while the Russian public is being fed propaganda and outright lies. Credibility gaps seem to be emerging from all over.
For most of my adult life, I have taken great joy in hearing – and telling, stories from the vast trove of Maine humor. Inevitably, they are tales of self-deprecation, and yet at the same time reflect some deep wisdom along with a unique dry wit. For years, the primary raconteur of these stories was Marshall Dodge, a gifted humorist and historian of American humor. I attended as many performances of his as I could before his death about twenty years ago. I was enthralled by his many accents, his impeccable timing – and his devotion to story. I remember him saying that the art of American humor is in the art of telling the story – which could be spun in a variety of ways. Yet in recent years, Dodge said, American humor has devolved into producing punch lines, which need to be delivered within thirty seconds or the comedian will lose the audience. Sometimes the punch lines are funny; often they are demeaning, if not cruel.
It could be argued that the short attention span of American humor has become the model for public discourse. There is increasing pressure for a speaker to issue statements every thirty seconds or so that produce feelings of resentment, outrage, disdain or fear in their audience. If the speaker is not able to do that, the concern is that the audience will wander off and listen – or vote, for someone else.
As much as we need to seek out stories that are grounded in truth, and listen to narratives that are designed to inform rather than inflame, we need to tell our own stories. Not just the basic facts: where we were born, where we lived and went to school, what jobs we have had, how many children we raised and what they are doing. But the deeper story of our life: what shapes our values, what do we think is important, where do we find meaning and what practices we engage in to lift up purpose and hope. Telling these stories requires some reflection, to be sure, but also involves disclosing a level of vulnerability. Most of us have a tendency to airbrush portions of our story, in order to keep an audience engaged. Most of us have chapters of our story that we don’t want others to know, for fear that we will lose them as acquaintances or friends if they hear it.
The sharing of stories deepens relationships. It opens us up to deeper truths about ourselves; and can serve as an antidote to the pressure to produce stories that advance an ego-driven agenda. I believe that the honest telling of our stories will help reduce the incidence of nasty public discourse.
A final note. For years I thought that biblical stories were studied in order to produce a clear and consistent interpretation. But after forty-three years of ordained life, and reading the same scriptural stories over and over again, I have discovered that the stories have grown. Not that they have changed — but reading them and hearing them have opened me up to new layers of meaning, new insights into the characters in the story, not to mention myself. These biblical stories increasingly frame my life. And help me to tell my own.