As Paul Costello, President and Founder of the New Story Leadership project, looked out at the crowd last night in Baxter Hall, he said to all of us assembled there, “Stories can imprison, or stories can empower.” And for the next two hours, we sat and listened to the 2017 fellows of NLS, five 20-somethings from Palestine, 5 from Israel, as they told us their stories – what brought them there, their struggles, their triumphs, their memories, their hopes and dreams for the future. They told us about a world and a life that we only read about; they were brave and confident and, dare I say, filled with just a little bit of hope.
There is no “fake news” when you look into someone’s eyes as they tell you their story. The facts might be viewed from one perspective or another, but the news, the good news of it all, is truth personified. It is their story; we can learn from it or not, but it is still their story.
A group of actors sit in the basement of a local service organization for homeless women. Across from them sit some of the residents of that program. Over the next 12 weeks, these two unlikely groups will become friends and colleagues, telling their stories together and creating something wonderful – a play that makes them all experience first-hand the tragedy and the beauty of another’s experience, a play that goes to the stage of the Kennedy Center itself and the White House, and becomes a documentary called How I Got Over. And the two actor/teachers behind this moment, Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro of Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts, will go on to teach others, like me, the power of the Life Stories Project to help people from all walks of life tell their stories.
There is no “fake news” when people bare their souls to us, in ways that they had never believed themselves to be capable of doing. We stand there, as unsuspecting midwives of change, in awe of the beauty and resilience of the human spirit. The story, given life in the room, transforms everyone — the teller and the listener, right there, in the theater, and beyond its walls.
A person, long troubled by the big questions in life, sits across from you, in a chair, all alone. Together, over the course of months or maybe years, you work together to tell the story of their life. Maybe you find some answers, maybe you only find more questions. But you support them as they make space for their own story, you help them hold that space, and maybe you make it possible for them to tell it somewhere else. Maybe not to a room full of strangers, maybe just to one other person. And maybe their story doesn’t change the world or give us hope for peace in the Middle East, but the ability to share that story changes them. And, by the way, it changes you. And that is the mystery of spiritual companioning — stories told, stories witnessed, stories embraced by teller and witness.
Dr. Dan Allender, author of The Wounded Heart, and other books about transforming your life by working with your story said, in a recent podcast from the Allender Center: “Your brain is social. Your brain is meant to engage the drama of life most deeply in social relationships. So not only do you get insight and perspective… but in some ways what you find is your brain healed by the presence of the other.” Wherever two or more are gathered…
We need to tell our stories, and we need to hear the stories of others. I was empowered by what I heard last night. I was empowered by a group of young people who face obstacles that I cannot begin to imagine, and yet, they have hope. They have hope that they can make a change. They have hope that for one brief moment, the “other” that they have been taught to hate might just be a friend. I thank them for their bravery and for that hope, and for sharing their story with me for just a moment. “Stories can imprison, or stories can empower,” said Paul Costello. And then I witnessed as the stories we heard set us free.