Story-Weaving Helps
Identify Our Lives

By Elaine Emeth

What stories do you love to read or hear over and over again? What stories seem to have special significance for you? Are there stories by which you live your life?

Favorite novels, nonfiction, dreams, family stories, plays, Scripture, history, art, and poetry supply stories that light our way through life.

Stories tell us who we are and give us a sense of direction. Through the process of telling and listening to stories, we weave ourselves into families and communities. The stories that we heard in our childhood and that we later tell to the children in our lives also weave together the past and the future.

Story-making and story-telling can be profoundly sacred activities. And because they are so powerful, stories also have the potential to exclude and hurt as well as to heal. From little stories improvised at a child's bedtime or around a campfire, to the great myths that give energy, insight, and connection to whole groups of people, stories shape who we are, how we make sense of lives, and our vision of a possible future.

Stories and Meaning

Truly great stories resonate within the deep places of our hearts that hunger for meaning in a world that often seems chaotic. From great classics, such as the Book of Job, to children's classics, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, stories give language to the great mysteries of life -- falling in love, birth, death, suffering, heroic journeys, risk, beauty, and truth.

Sometimes a brief story can capture the meaning of great, sacred paradoxes such as birth/death, giving/receiving, defeat/triumph, going out/coming home, risk/safety, forgiving/being freed. In the absence of story, thousands of words might be unable to explain the same idea.

Some stories carry creative insight and energy from the realm of the unconscious into our everyday lives. Other stories have the power to hurt and to separate. For example, untold family stories can fail to inspire or equip youth for their own futures. Exclusive stories, such as stories with protagonists all of one gender, can cause persons of the opposite gender to feel that those stories do not apply to them. Similarly, stories of victimhood, worthlessness, or defeat need to be shed like a snakeskin, so that a new identity can be created. The Good News of the Christian story, the ultimate healing story, is that new life is always possible through the power of God's grace.

Through their universality, healing stories connect us to others and transform us, making us more whole. The insight that universal, or archetypal, stories give us illuminates our path through life, so that life no longer feels like a walk in a dark woods, but a journey with trailmarkers to guide our way.

Identity Stories

The family is an ideal place in which to build a treasury of stories, as elders reminisce about their earlier years, and parents share with their children family photographs or items that represent their family history -- letters and documents, tools of trade, toys, needlecraft, recipes, furniture or household items. Children appropriate their family stories through repetition and gradually take over the telling.

It takes a lot of little stories to portray a person or an event. No one story carries The Whole Truth, but stories may be thought of as little spotlights on complex truths, each little spotlight having the potential to illuminate one or more aspects of a reality.

Stories of origin, creation stories, are identity stories that have a mythic quality; that is, they spotlight different aspects of a profound truth in a story form. People generally don't like others to mess with their stories of origin -- they become deeply attached to stories and myths of origin because they naturally feel that their identity is at stake.

For Jews and Christians, having two creation stories in the book of Genesis poses an interesting dilemma: can we allow two (or more) stories to shed light on our beginnings and accept multiple stories as simultaneously true (including evidence from science), or should we crunch the two biblical stories into one and restrict it to one and only one meaning?

Just as family stories tell individuals who we are and religious stories tell us who we are as faith communities, national and cultural histories tell us who we are corporately. What we select to tell and not to tell says volumes about what is important enough to us to record. We also have a heritage of nonverbal stories that is communicated through the arts. Painting, sculpture, dance, music, and all of the visual and performing arts proclaim the values of their times.

Stories as Roadmaps

Once we have a sense of background and identity, we wonder what comes next. We need a vision of future possibilities, a future story, in order to make decisions for today.

Biographical stories can provide role models that shape future stories. Fiction can do this, too, but "real live people" tend to be more inspiring than fictitious characters because they show that goals can be attained. All children and adults benefit from role models with whom they can relate -- especially people of their own race and gender. Written or living stories of biblical characters, historical figures, sports heroes, astronauts, teachers, parents, next-door neighbors, even characters on television provide role models.

Dreams, myths, and fairy tales offer roadmaps to the future through the language of images and symbols from the realm of the psyche. Dreams are usually personal roadmaps; myths and fairy tales are more universal. Most of us need help to interpret unfamiliar symbols. Storytellers and interpreters such as Robert Bly, Allan B. Chinen, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Marion Woodman can help us make sense of myths and fairy tales so that we can bring their wisdom into our lives.

Scripture offers ultimate stories that give meaning and direction to our lives. The parables and healing stories of Jesus address the particulars of the human situation -- one-up-manship, openness, anxiety, humility, pride, forgiveness, selfishness, compassion. The whole life of Jesus may be seen as a parable, too -- a story with an amazing plot twist in his death and resurrection that promises us a hopeful future no matter how bleak a situation may appear to us.

Stories guide us and sustain us through life. Our lives themselves are stories that we create with each decision that we make. What do you want your life story to say? Come to the cafe and let's chat!

Posted June 1997

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