Story-telling - getting to the heart of things
By Doug Reeler
Community Development Resource Association
This Nugget is part of a long-overdue personal exploration of story-telling as a more conscious element of a developmental practice. I am sure that many of the people reading this have a strong sense and experience of the power of story-telling in processes of change and learning in their work and in their personal lives. I have worked with stories, as case-studies, fictional tales, personal biographies, and various forms of drama or role-play, but I have never really asked what it is about stories and story-telling that makes them so useful. Or what it is in human nature that draws us to stories. I also feel that my process designs are limited, too tentative, and not open enough to what more stories can bring. Hence this exploration.
A short while ago I came across this story in a novel I was reading. It is a story of a traditional Indian story-teller, the Kathakali Man, living in modern times:
"It didn't matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen.. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.
To the Kathakali Man these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown up with them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadow he played in. They are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child of his own. He teases it. He punishes it. He sends it up like a bubble. He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkey's tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread. From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into the seductive mischief of Krishna's smile. He can reveal the nugget of sorrow that happiness contains. The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.
He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.
The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument. From the age of three it had been planed and polished, pared down, harnessed solely to the task of story-telling. He has magic in him, this man within the painted mask and swirling skirts.
But these days he has become unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods. His children deride him. They long to be everything that he is not. He has watched them grow up to be clerks and bus conductors. Class IV non-gazetted officers. With unions of their own.
But he himself, left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth, cannot do what they do. He cannot slide down the aisles of buses, counting change and selling tickets. He cannot answer bells that summon him. He cannot stoop behind trays of tea and Marie biscuits.
In despair he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.
He becomes a Regional Flavour.
In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them. He collects his fee. He gets drunk. Or smokes a joint. Good Kerala grass. It makes him laugh. Then he stops by the Ayemenem Temple, he and the others with him, and they dance to ask pardon of the gods."
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
From a beautiful vision of this man and his art, to his dark journey of compromise through a modernising world and the sad and haunting dance of atonement at the Temple, I am moved from wonder and inspiration to sadness, loss and then to anger. Possibly even to action. A story can get to the heart of things, it has its own way.
There is little comfort in this story. Rather the Kathakali man's loss is mine too. I was inspired by his deep and huge art of story-telling, then dismayed and incensed by the corruption of an ancient form, our precious heritage, crafted, shaped and grown through the ages, stories and the discipline of telling them, passed on from teacher to student, from grandparent to child. Now being thrust aside by a cynical and artless wave of modernity.
I loved stories as a child, though I had too few, and I know of the enormous role that they have played in my own children's development. Though I can hardly explain it, because it is both obvious and mysterious, like stories themselves. I sense that these stories enter my children and expand them, opening up spaces in which their imaginations can explore, fly and grow, where they can lose themselves and try out new gestures. For children, we know that stories are effective teachers, seeping under the often locked door that is their resistance to instruction and moving inside them, becoming their own experience, their own lesson to resolve. It is a way children have learnt through the ages, though sadly today it is far less valued.
The Kathakali Man may be telling fewer Great Stories at the Temple, but Stories have not gone, they have just become separate and frozen. We have never had so many stories, fed to us through the television, the new temple of worship, seldom if ever our own stories, and mostly fixed, canned, copyrighted, controlled. But what matters is not only who tells what story but what lives between the teller and the listener. These latter day Kathakali Men no longer know their audience intimately, only as a market, with whims to play to and disposable income to lure and bank. The Great Stories told at the Temple have become the Block Busters shown on the TV, and instead of waking us up to ourselves we have become spellbound and addicted, paying homage to Celebrities, the new Gods and Goddesses of our era, rendering us more passive, living other people's lives, less adequate and willing to tell and understand our own Stories, more asleep.
And yet we do tell stories (with a small's) every day, at tea-time, in a meeting, on a bus, at the kitchen table, over the fence, anywhere. Stories are fundamental to social interaction, found everywhere, a form of expression, of memory and imagination, that can relate, describe, characterise, and hold an essential thread of unfolding experience. We need to tell stories to explain things to each other, to understand each other - how things happen, why they happen. Is it possible to have a day without hearing or telling a story in some way? Stories are our memories and the food of our imaginations.
Growing like children, stories can change with age, as we change with age, full of truth, lies and imaginings. Even when honestly told they are never fully true, but are bendable mirrors, shape-shifters, full of truthful fiction and lying facts. Our own myths. Able to illuminate, darken, reveal or deceive.
Stories connect us, they build relationship. I have an experience of you when I listen to you relate your story, as it enters me so it draws us together, your stories explain you to me. What I choose to express shapes your experience of me, and your memory of my story, who I am to you. Take away what we know of each other's story and what do we know? As we remember our stories and hear others tell theirs, the stories become us. Our experience may give birth to our stories but so too do our stories become our experience.
If I hear your story, vividly told with heart and meaning, rather than as a straight factual report, it can enter me more deeply and become my story, one I can identify with - I can now learn from it differently, as my own experience, not as delivered knowledge but as practice, vicariously on-the-job. I can be changed by it as you were changed by it, though in my own way. The better you can tell it and the more I am able to listen to it, the more I can learn.
Stories are not like pictures, they don't hang around. They are live art wanting to perform, waiting to breathe out. Or they lie hidden and ignored, bitter shadow whisperers, blind guides. Unconscious tricksters. Untold stories of fear, hatred, doubt and shame that block the rivers of our unfolding lives. Stories that when told, become cathartic testimonies, spreading honesty, giving release and granting new birth. From the inside out. Development.
When we choose to break the silence we do so by telling our stories, with a power we can seldom anticipate. I heard a first-hand account from a staff member of UNIFEM, the UN women's programme when, two years ago, they needed to get a resolution passed through the UN Security Council, to release funds for programmes aimed at abused women and children in many countries. They knew that a conventional approach would be tiresome and meet with bureaucratic and probably male resistance. So instead they arranged for several women, survivors of abuse, accessed through NGOs they work with, to travel to Washington. There, they sat in a circle with these fifteen most powerful men of the Security Council and told their stories. After the session the resolution was immediately and unreservedly signed. Fifteen men's hearts melted by stories of pain and hope - taken straight to the heart of the matter. And who was facilitating whose development here?
Story-telling still lives strongly in Africa, especially in older, rural and peri-urban communities, where so much development work is located - living both as traditional fables to pass on wisdom, but also as a daily way of people expressing themselves to one another. I have heard peasant farmers tell their poetic stories, everyday tales of the mundane, and marvelled at the parables, pictures and metaphors they continually weave into daily exchanges, a deep culture of imagination, artistic conversations. Yet how much respect have I paid to this deep social and cultural capacity to remember, to make sense, the authentic processes by which people relate, advocate, learn and dream? What clever methods have I imported and imposed to disable them? Just who is participating in whose process?
This is humbling after so many years of trying to work developmentally, and worrying that even in my attempt at facilitative designs I have been too logical, obvious, cautious, s.m.a.r.t., too much in control. Perhaps I have avoided the question or paid it only scant and cautious attention, because facilitating story-telling at the heart of a process looks hard, such an art, mysterious and out of reach, out of my control. Yet that does not feel completely true because sometimes something wonderful does happen, but I have not always been sure how or why. Maybe working more within a story-telling process is not out there, beyond my grasp, but comes from somewhere inside, so simple, so close and obvious that it is hard to see, so fundamental and common to human beings that we can all access it. Helping people to tell and learn and advocate from their own stories, finding their own voices and thinking their own thoughts. I suspect that to learn to do this we must come back to our own biographies (our own development) and learn to re-tell them, again, differently, our own Great Stories, our own myths. And story-telling, as part of a developmental practice, may take a different kind of time and timing, less package-able in manuals, less of a warm-up exercise, less prone to a planned outcome, but no less rigorous in getting to where the heart of developmental work lies, and over time more fruitful.
What is the art of facilitating the circumstances and processes of authentic story-telling for learning?
Attached below is a lighter after-story I cannot resist putting down, to bring some balance, but not a Great Story, since there is a trick ending - although my 8-year old daughter asks me to tell it again and again. Also put here to remind us of our need for humour in troubled times, and how stories can help (it also has some beautiful lessons to talk about, but enjoy it first):
About five hundred years ago the Pope issued a decree banishing all Jews from Rome. There was, of course, an uproar in the Jewish community and frantic delegations were sent to the Pope to petition him to let them stay. He was moved by their appeals but was still under political pressure to remove them from Rome. So as a compromise he called for a theological debate. "You must choose someone to debate with me. If you lose the debate, all the Jews must leave. If you win, the Jews can stay." After more consultations the Jews agreed, seeing no other way out.
So they began looking for someone to take on the formidable task of beating the Pope at a theological debate. No-one came forward, none was so bold. Eventually after searching high and low, after all pleas had failed, they came at last to Moshe, the street sweeper, the poorest man in the community. "Brothers and sisters!" he said after he had thought for a while on their request, "How can you ask me to debate the Pope when I am a man of so few words? But what choice do you have left? Yes, I will debate with the Pope, but to make it more fair, I will do so if we do not use words." The Pope was approached, and hearing who Moshe was, he agreed.
So the day of the great debate arrived, with all the people thronging the assembly in the centre of Rome. Moshe took his place, seated opposite the Pope. The Pope began the debate by raising three fingers. Moshe replied immediately by raising one finger. The Pope seemed a bit taken aback, and paused for while. Then he waved his hand around above his head. Moshe immediately pointed at the ground. The Pope went white. He waved his hand and a servant brought out a little plate of wafers and a goblet of wine. Moshe brought out an apple. The Pope then stood up and declared "I cannot beat this man. He is too good. The Jews can stay!" And he hurried back to the Vatican.
When his Cardinals caught up with him they gathered around and asked him what in Heaven's name had happened. The Pope replied,
"Well, as you know, I began by raising three fingers to signify the Holy Trinity, the unique concept of Christianity. Moshe responded with one finger reminding me that we share one God. How could I respond?"
So I waved my hand around my head to signify that God is all around us. He pointed at the ground to tell me that God is right here now. What could I say?
\So then I called for wafers and wine to put forward our most powerful belief in the concept of sin and redemption, through the sacrifice of the body and the blood of Christ. But he brought out an apple to remind me of the concept of Original Sin! Then I realised he was too good for me and I conceded.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Rome, after being carried shoulder-height back to the Jewish quarter, everyone gathered around Moshe, "Well done Moshe! But what happened, how did you win?" Moshe replied,
"Well, the Pope started, as you know, by raising three fingers, to tell me that we have three days to leave Rome. I responded by raising one finger to tell him that not one of us is leaving. He then waved his hand above his head to say that all the Jews have to leave. I pointed to the ground to tell him that we are staying right here!"
"Yes, Moshe, but then what happened?"
"I don't really know, he took out his lunch, so I took out mine."