“But how could you live and have no story to tell?” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in The White Knights. Not that I have read The White Knights. It was my friend Nick Isbister of ‘The Listening Partnership’, who introduced me to this quotation and in the process also introduced me to the importance of storytelling. Indeed, I confess that this article is largely based on what I have learnt from Nick. Certainly many of the quotations I used in this piece have been taken from a talk which Nick gave in September (2022) to a Cambridge alumni group which I run.
Not that I have been a stranger to storytelling. For me story telling has always been part of my being. Perhaps because I had an Irish grandfather who loved to tell stories. What’s more, he often repeated his stories, and the stories were still as powerful even although we knew how they would end. Like my grandfather, I tell stories to my grandchildren, and then go on to repeat them. In the fellowship group I have led over the years, I also continue to tell stories – and often find myself repeating them!
My autobiography, This is my story: The story of life, faith and ministry (Wipf and Stock 2018) was about story-telling. But it was Nick Isbister who enabled me to see how helpful story telling can be – both to ourselves and others.
More recently I have self-published a book for our friends, which I entitled Growing Older: Our story of new adventures and new horizons (College of Baptist Ministers in association with PB-M books 2022). In that book I have sought to reflect on all that we have experienced over these last turbulent five years. There has been so much to tell. In that regard P.G. Wodehouse was wrong when he wrote “The three essentials for an autobiography are that its compiler shall have had an eccentric father, a miserable misunderstood childhood and a hell of a time at his public school. I enjoyed none of these advantages.” These last few years have contained to much material for storytelling.
The last five years or so have not been easy years. But as Richard Kearney wrote in his book, On Stories (Routledge 2001):
In being narrated and exchanged, incurable wounds become healable scars. They are illumined and felt. Without concrete incarnate stories, you’re left with ideological abstractions, the grand narratives of Official History. We need micro-stories to counterbalance macro-histories.
Telling our stories is good for us. In the words of an article by Lissa Rankin, ‘The Healing Power of Telling Your Story’ (27 November 2012) in the American journal Psychology Today:
Telling your story—while being witnessed with loving attention by others who care—may be the most powerful medicine on earth. Each of us is a constantly unfolding narrative, a hero in a novel no one else can write. And yet so many of us leave our stories untold, our songs unsung—and when this happens, we wind up feeling lonely, listless, out of touch with our life’s purpose, plagued with a chronic sense that something is out of alignment”.
She then becomes somewhat technical and in a way which is beyond my understand, she went on:
We may even wind up feeling unworthy, unloved, or sick. Every time you tell your story and someone else who cares bears witness to it, you turn off the body’s stress responses, flipping off toxic stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine and flipping on relaxation responses that release healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins. Not only does this turn on the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms and function as preventative medicine—or treatment if you’re sick. It also relaxes your nervous system and helps heal your mind of depression, anxiety, fear, anger, and feelings of disconnection.
Yes, telling our stories can be good for us – there are some stages in our lives when we could all benefit from having a counsellor or a therapist listen to us.
But it is not only we who can benefit from telling our stories – others can benefit too. In the words of Jonah Sachs, “Stories are how we humans arrange and recount our experiences of the world so that others will want to listen to and learn from them” (Winning the Story Wars: Why Those who tell and live the best stories will rule the future, Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). Indeed, effective leadership can benefit from telling stories. John Kotter of the Harvard Business School wrote, “Leaders weave stories so everyone feels part of something bigger than just being busy with a set of tasks” – to which I feel like saying, politicians please note!
Hopefully a book I am in the process of editing entitled For Christ and For Wales (College of Baptist Ministers in association with PB-M books, 2022 perhaps 2023) will be equally inspirational, as the various contributors honour the memory of Caroline’s grandfather, John Griffiths, by not just telling the story of his vision of a Wales with Christ at the centre, but also encourage God’s people today to take up the ‘baton’ and make a difference not just to their local communities and also to the life of the nation as a whole. Story-telling can prove inspirational.