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Telling meaningful stories

We all tell a lot of stories and listen to a lot of stories. It’s one of the main ways we humans communicate and make connections with one another, pulling past experiences into the present moment and creating meaning by them.

But not everyone is a good storyteller. In fact, we all regularly encounter people who either bore or bully us with their bad storytelling.

There are times when someone will tell story after meaningless story without pausing for breath in between, and I can feel the life draining from my body. And I wonder, “Can’t this person see what she’s doing to me? And how is it that she’s lived as long as she has without learning how to tell a good story?”

So, what is it that makes for a good story? And by good, I don’t mean entertaining. There are people who are excellent entertainers, who can keep us engaged with their stories.

What I getting at here is this: What makes for a meaningful story, a story that adds to the life of both the teller and the listener?

According to communication expert John Savage in his book Listening & Caring Skills, there are four levels to story telling. Here’s my own take on his thoughts.

Level 1: Information back then.

The most basic level of story-telling is a simple relating of information that happened previously. We do this numerous times every day in conversations, in emails, on social media, and in the news we consume.

“I took my family to the U2 concert in Oakland, California, in 2011” is an informational story about something that took place a few years ago. If there are details the listeners find interesting, it can even be an engaging story. But it has no real meaning. Not yet. (Note: The further in the past the story is, the less emotionally engaging it is, since there’s more distance between who you are now and who you were then. That is, unless you get to level 2 ….)

Level 2: Emotions back then.

A story gains depth when we begin to move from the purely informational to the emotional.

“As we stood and sang along with our favorite U2 songs, I felt a deep bond with my family. There I was, with my favorite people, standing ten feet away from my favorite band. It felt like heaven.”

When I engage my feelings about an event that happened in the past, I’m no longer talking in sterile information language. I’m emotionally engaged and, most likely, so too is my listener. But if the emotions stay “back then,” there is less engagement than if I express current feelings about the experience.

Level 3: Emotions now.

The best stories don’t stay in the past. They live in the present, interacting with our lives today.

“When I think about that concert, I feel nostalgic. I realize what a snapshot in time it was for our family. And now that the kids are older and heading off to college, I wonder if we’ll have many more times like that. You ever feel that way?”

Once I have a sense of how the story connects with my current feelings, I begin to understand why I told the story in the first place.

Level 4: Self-understanding.

We don’t just tell stories. When we draw memories from the past, we do so because of current realities. There’s a reason I’m telling this story and not a different one. There’s a connection between what happened before and what’s going on now. And so, when we listen to others as storytellers and to ourselves as storytellers, we can come to a moment of insight.

“Remembering that concert makes me realize how afraid I am of having my kids drift away as they grow older. It makes me determined to let them have their own lives and experiences with their own families while also making sure that we have more experiences together like that concert. If U2 is still around then, I want to take my grandkids!”

I’ve seen this kind of self-understanding happen as people tell good stories. And I’ve listened to someone tell a powerful story that could have led to such self-understanding, but she blitzed on to the next story and the one after that, while I sat there thinking, “What a profound thing she just said. I wish I could get a word in to articulate what I just heard her say.” I kick myself for not speaking up in those situations.

There’s so much more to our story-telling and story-listening than we generally experience. May we all become better tellers and better listeners, not afraid of emotion and moving toward self-understanding.

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We need better stories for better imaginations

We know who we are by the stories we tell. Better stories lead to better living.

If I tell a lot of stories about how busy I am, busyness defines my identity.

If I tell a lot of stories about how badly treated I am, the actions of others and my hurt feelings defines my identity.

If I share memories of great times with old friends, depth of friendship defines my identity.

So, the personal stories I tell about my life determine what is important in my life and how I am experiencing these aspects of my life. The same is true of the stories we are immersed in.

My wife and I watched the first ten episodes of the TV show Gotham, fascinated by the backstory of the Batman. Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 1.57.17 PM.pngIt has compelling characters and is well-written, but the relentless darkness of the show caused us to quit it. As much as we identified with several of the characters, we found the heavy weight of the show’s overall darkness to be a lie.

Similarly, those who watch a lot of TV news end up with a negative, fearful view of life. There is always a political issue to be frustrated about. There is always a health scare to be worried about. There is always a social issue to be agitated about. That’s because these are the stories and the angles on these stories that TV news focuses on.

It doesn’t matter if the stories we encounter in books, movies, and TV are fictional or reality-based, they shape the way we view the world and how we live in it. They set our imaginations.

To help myself understand how the stories I am taking in affect me, I have four questions that I evaluate them by.

1. What does it mean to be human in this story

This question takes some time to get the feel for. But once you do, you start getting the hang of it and you start noticing its huge influence on your worldview.

If you’re watching Quentin Tarantino movies, you will conclude that to be human is to be violent and vengeful.

If you’re watching any of a vast number of talent-oriented TV shows like The Voice or Dancing With The Stars, you will conclude that to be human is to be wonderfully talented but subject to harsh scrutiny.

If you’re wathing a family-oriented drama like Parenthood, you will conclude that to be human is to determined by family relationships and that though there are plenty of joys in families, they are mostly filled with drama.

If you’re watching a comedy like How I Met Your Mother, you will conclude that to be human is determined by the quest to find a romantic soul mate.

Being aware of how these stories shape the way we think about what it means to be human is important, because we find ourselves affected by and adopting their worldviews without even noticing it.

2. How does this story imagine the world we live in?

This may include some specific culture critique or simply a general view of the world at large.

Some view the world as environmentally doomed. Some view our culture as run by heartless corporations. Some view corruption — political, police, religious, corporate, etc. — as the basic reality of life. Some view the world through a Darwinistic lens of endless competition. Some view the world as meaningless. Some, like the supernatural thrillers, view the world as a cosmic spiritual battle between good and evil (with evil always on the verge of winning).

3. Is there a God in this story? And if so, what is this God like?

Many of our stories are effectively God-less. Not only are characters prayerless, they have no orientation toward an over-arching meaning to the events of the world. There is no larger story that their smaller stories fit into, no bigger story of God.

But even stories that reference some God-like being don’t necessarily include the biblical God. And too often, we assume that any God in any story is the biblical God.

For instance, in Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman does a wonderful job in his portrayal of the divine, but it’s still far from the biblical vision of God. Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 1.55.19 PM.pngFirst of all, in all of his power, he is overly limited in his ability to affect individual lives. But beyond that, he isn’t a Trinity. He’s a single monad. Not only does this limit him as a character in the film, but it constricts our view of God by eliminating Trinity from our conception of and interaction with God. He is more about power than relationship.

Whenever there is a divine element in any story we encounter, it’s always helpful to consider the characteristics of this “God” to see which ones dominate and which biblical characteristics are set aside.

4. What images and/or distortions of the gospel are in this story?

Just because there are biblical echoes in a story doesn’t mean that the gospel can be found in the story. And just because there are no biblical echoes doesn’t mean that the gospel is very much present in the story.

Just because the movie Evan Almighty is based on the Noah story doesn’t mean that it accurately represents that story or that this is telling a gospel story. In fact, it’s so far off, it might as well have been telling the Epic of Gilgamesh story instead.

In the final episode of the first season of Daredevil, Wilson Fisk retells the story of the Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 1.53.02 PM.pngGood Samaritan in surprisingly accurate detail. And then he walks through the characters in the story to locate himself within it (which is a helpful way to engage with the Scriptures), landing on a surprising conclusion. While the conclusion is anti-gospel, it brings up all kinds of considerations which point to the gospel. Sometimes, distortions can point to the truth.

In The Matrix, Neo has his Garden of Gethsemane moment when he is put into the Construct and asked what he wants. He replies, “Guns. Lots of guns.” This is in direct contrast to Jesus telling Peter to put away his sword, saying those who live by it will die by it. Neo shows himself to be sadly unimaginative, falling back on violence, which empties his later death and resuscitation to an empty echo of Jesus’ voluntary death and glorious resurrection.

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The stories we tell ourselves & the truth of our lives 

I know who I am by the stories I tell to myself. The same is true of my relationships.

People who are happy in their relationships tell themselves happy stories from their relationships. They remember past events with fondness, because those are the past events they choose to dwell on. And they pick the good events of the day just past to remember and rehearse, instead of its frustrations.

Single events from life that are repeatedly told to ourselves have the ability to become the story of our lives, for good or for ill. And what’s fascinating is these stories are often untrue. I don’t mean unfactual. I mean faulty in interpretation.

I know someone whose first wife died from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a heater leak in a too airtight cabin. He only barely survived. His oldest son from his second marriage has remarked on the weight he feels that he wouldn’t be alive if his dad’s first wife hadn’t died.

That is factually correct. But only partly so. And it’s a negative interpretation of what happened. The real truth is this: He’s alive because his dad survived, and miraculously so.

One telling of this story focuses on a sad and meaningless death. The other telling of this story focuses on a miraculous and purposeful life.

How he tells the same exact story to himself determines how he views his own life. Is it sad and meaningless? Or is it miraculous and purposeful?

Interpreting the stories of our lives is everything.

Seth Godin wrote a brief and excellent blog post on how we tell stories of success and failure to ourselves. When we focus on telling stories of failure to ourselves, we begin to feel like failures, even if our successes outnumber our failures.

We become our self-stories.

But this is true not just of ourselves. It’s true of our relationships. When a husband ignores all of the loving things his wife says to him and focuses on her attempts to get him to do something she’s asked him to do for months, he tells a relational story of nagging.

The telling of negative stories in marriages has destroyed many. But the positive flip side is also true. There are many marriages that have been repaired and flourished because negative stories have been replaced by positive ones.

My guess is that there are a few relationships that have gone south on you, where you continue to tell certain stories to yourself about the relationship, reinforcing its negativity. And my guess is that there are alternative stories you could be telling yourself about these people that would renew the relationship.

The question is: Do we love our negative stories so much that we’re unwilling to let them go and replace them with positive stories?

At the heart of the Christian faith is a small meal which is eaten regularly as an act of memory. It’s main purpose is to engage the telling of a particular story. That meal, called communion or the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, recalls the sacrificial death of Jesus. And those who eat it are reminded every time they do of just how much they are loved. They are loved so much that the words “I would die for you” aren’t mere sentiment, but are foundational reality.

The story that meal retells is one of amazing grace: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.” This is a story of daring rescue, of passionate love, of unbreakable hope.

So, what stories are you telling yourself today? Is there a better interpretation than the one you’ve settled on?