When I was growing up, every evening before bedtime my father would tell my brothers and me stories of his childhood.
“Tell us a story about when you were little, Dad!” my brothers and I would cry.
Then he’d proceed with a tall tale of some injustice he righted, a bully he conquered – or sometimes just a story without a particular moral but for pure entertainment value.
He’d regale us with tales of his adventures growing up in New England with his two brothers and their ally Dickey Ellis, who was the butt of all the jokes – but who, despite always being underestimated, managed to emerge victorious alongside the Vankevich brothers in their exploits.
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Storytelling helped me learn to defend the oppressed and question authority
They defended the vulnerable against the petty cruelty of Butch, the local bully who preyed on the weak. They foiled the authoritarianism of the stern Sister Maureen – who wore a ruler strapped to her belt that she used generously, and who donned jackboot-like shoes that announced her presence and put fear into students’ hearts as she approached.
The morals of these stories were always implicit. Stand up for the oppressed. Question authority figures when they are being unjust. Diffuse cruelty with wit.
It was only while I was creating a televisual series on storytelling, “Storytelling and The Human Condition,” for Wondrium and The Great Courses, that my father divulged a secret.
The majority of the stories he told about his upbringing didn’t actually happen.
I was stunned – and then laughed.
I realized it didn’t matter that they weren’t true.
Communicating mythic and moral truth – not only evidentiary facts – through story has been central to the human experience throughout the history of our species. What has mattered to people most is that stories offer coherent answers to their questions about where they come from, why the world is as it is, and how they should lead their life.
That is what my father’s stories did for us. We loved his stories. They taught and formed the moral map through which we see the world.
Stories are an inheritance passed from one generation to the next
Now, I’m carrying on the tradition. My son, age 3, pleads for a story from mom every evening before bed.
One of his favorites is about the Dino and the Rhino. After the Dino’s bid for friendship is rejected from the chicken, the cheetah and the whale – each of whom claim friendship is impossible because of the differences in species – the Dino meets Mr. Rhino, who extends unconditional friendship to his Jurassic-era companion despite their differences.
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Storytelling is generational, and stories are an inheritance. They are how we keep our memories, tradition, wisdom and history alive. Stories also make us more resilient, adaptive and psychologically flexible.
They are gifts that help us learn lessons without suffering the consequences of mistakes ourselves.
Recently, my son has asked me to tell and retell the story of the time that I didn’t look both ways before I crossed the street while frog hunting – and got hit by a truck.
I don’t end the story of my car accident on a sad note when I tell it to my son, but instead make into a story of redemption and purpose. I tell him that God saved my life when that massive pickup truck ran me over at the age of 4, and how I confounded the doctors’ predictions by eventually playing soccer in college. (It’s a true story, by the way.)
Ending the story of my accident on a high note harnesses the power of stories to help us heal. They can transform our greatest traumas into our greatest triumphs.
Alexandra Hudson is author of “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves,” and curator of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to moral and cultural renewal. Her lecture series, “Storytelling and the Human Condition,” is available through Wondrium and The Great Courses.
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