“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” ~ John Donne.
Some people are born story tellers. They may be telling you their shopping list but somehow they weave tension, drama and humor into the reciting of the mundane. There are those who you love to hear talk, for you know you will be entertained. All that is required of you is to listen, gasp as appropriate, chuckle when it is called for, and allow the person their space. I remember story time at school, when I was very young. The teacher would have us gather around her in a circle on the floor while she read from a colorful book. Children’s librarians are often skilled in that way, acting out each part with a different voice, conjuring up lions and tigers and dragons and fiends.
For every story teller there must be a listener. And many of us are bad at listening. But a person with a vivid imagination can see the world created through the words of another, can picture, smell and feel; can be pulled into the tale so deeply that it may be hard to come back to the present moment. Those who have been to the theater, to see live action played out in front of you, or even to watch a good film, know how weird it is to walk back out into the real world, for a while you have been a part of another dimension, another person’s reality.
The best public speakers are story tellers, those who can unite their audience with a tale; an anecdote that breaks the tension, that makes those present want to keep listening. For some it comes naturally, they may just have to hone their own talents. For others it is a learned skill, they have to pay attention to the process until it becomes loose and instinctive. Preachers may or may not be good story tellers. There are those who think that because they are speaking from the Good Book they are automatically imparting a best seller! But a sermon has to be a blend of the human along with the divine. Especially if there are young people trying not to listen. The only way to instill a message is to first get someone’s attention. Some preachers use shock and awe, trying to instill the fear of fire and brimstone to inspire change and repentance. That mostly doesn’t work with teenagers, who see themselves as immortal anyway.
Like poets, storytellers are needed more than ever nowadays, to help us make sense of a world gone mad. Whether it is disasters originating in the natural world, or tragedies created by man, we yearn for someone to make sense of it all. Often it is the poets who find a way to stick you with their barbed lines, forcing you to confront painful truths. According to Rita Dove: “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” That act of condensing words down to their most potent core forces the reader to pay attention to the message. A message that cannot hide in flowery and unnecessary verbiage.
All week long I have been struggling to make sense of our world, a world which seems more and more inhumane every day. And then yesterday I visited Starbucks for the first time in months. I no longer drive by the entrance on my way to work, I have learned to do without that rousing aroma, that place where coffee and comfort come together with a melody. And as I waited for my drink I was bopping to a song that I first heard over 40 years ago, the cool Teddy Pendergrass (ok ladies!) crooning the lyrics: “Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed; no more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead.” And when I heard the line: “…there is so much hatred, war and poverty” I realized that what is old is new, and there is nothing new under the sun.
When confronted with evil, the only remedy is to look for the opposite. When crushed by acts of violence it is important to look for signs of hope and generosity. When forced to see the ugly and painful it is crucial to focus on the good and the lovely. For there are many more examples of good than evil. Unfortunately, the evil acts tend to soak up all the airwaves. We cannot afford to become numbed by the callous acts that dominate the headlines. We cannot turn our backs on the pain of others, just so we can maintain a false sense of equanimity.
For me it was not the numbers that struck me. Numbers are not people. Statistics are just numbers that try to represent the whole in manageable pieces. But I was undone this week by one person’s story. One family member who was able to speak of her mother in a way that brought her into my car and made me cry for her, for her life cut short. And I recognized once more that what makes us special as humans is our ability to connect with those to whom we are not related. Once I make that connection with another I am reminded that we share a common humanity.
So this morning I give thanks for the storytellers; the reporters who go to distant places and ask uncomfortable questions, so that they can bring us a story which will help us to recognize the bonds we share, the commonalities that make us merely different aspects of one whole organism: the human race.
On this wonderful Friday morning, may we find things to be thankful for, and may we put ourselves in the shoes of another. For we are: “…one big family…” as the diminutive Half Pint sings so beautifully.