The Power of Storytelling
By Haeon Kang
In a previous blog post, I talked about the importance of people’s stories and how telling our stories can impact the people around us. Today, I want to talk about how we tell those stories, and the power this can have on how we interpret events, what we believe, and how we live our lives.
First, how we tell stories affects how we interpret events. Telling our stories is a reflective act. We have to reflect on our lives in order to tell our stories. And how we tell our stories can also completely shape the way we view our past, engage with the present, and plan our futures. If we peer into our past with pessimism, we will only tell stories of woe and misery, emphasizing events that were painful, unjust, or cruel which creates even more woe and misery in the present and an anticipation of woe and misery in the future. If we look into our lives with a lens of hope and meaning, we will tell stories of overcoming, resilience, and joy. We will be more willing to interpret events in the present with meaning and imagine (and live into) a future where we find hope and peace. Everyone’s stories have elements in them that are hard and heartbreaking. The way we talk about them is what creates an inspiring story or simply a sad one.
I want to put a quick disclaimer here. Sad stories have their place to be sure. Lament is a huge theme in the Bible and is a great and rich tradition in the Church. We need lament because the world is not the way it is supposed to be. The world is currently laden with suffering, oppression, and inequality, and we need to acknowledge that honestly. However, we must also keep in mind that death does not have the last word and that transformation is not only possible, but is actually happening in the world. We don’t want to arrive there too quickly without having fully lamented our suffering and pain, but we must arrive there if we are to go on in this world.
We can see now that how we tell our stories affects how we interpret the past, present, and future. How we tell our stories also influences what we believe. If we tell stories of hope and triumph as we reflect on the events of our lives, we are more likely to believe that God is good, that we are resilient, and that we will have the strength to face whatever lies in the future. How we tell stories affects our perception of ourselves and others and is often a key part of how we view our identity. If we look at our lives and interpret our lives as one big story about defeat, leaving out all the bits where we succeeded or were kind or found hope, we will not have a healthy view of ourselves. We may see ourselves as losers or solely as victims, affecting what we believe about ourselves and the nature of others. It is important to tell truthful stories about our lives, including the good and the bad, because the stories we tell affect what we believe about ourselves, others, and the world. Believing things based on a narrow or less-than-truthful story will make us believe things that are wrong and unhelpful.
Finally, how we tell stories shapes how we live our lives. This idea builds on the last two in that how we perceive events and what we believe affects what we do in life. We, more often than not, follow the trajectory of the stories we write about ourselves. We tend to act based on how we interpret events from our past, and what we believe about ourselves, others, and the world, creating a future that is consistent with these pre-existing stories and beliefs. If our story is one of redemption, we may approach future struggles with more grace, hope, and faith, which results in growth. If we have consistently been disappointed and we focus on that part of our stories, we may see challenges as more opportunities for disappointment rather than as opportunities for growth. By thinking this way, we miss the blessings that come into our lives and only see what we expect to see: more disappointment.
I’m going to end with a story to bring all of these ideas together. When I was in early grade school, I was told by my teachers that I was lazy and not particularly intelligent. This probably had something to do with the fact that English was my second language, one that I didn’t know well when I entered school. As a kid, you adopt the stories that others tell about you because you don’t yet have the independence to distance yourself from others and think for yourself. So, I always thought of myself as unremarkable and unintelligent, and everything I did evidenced this. I got average to low grades, I didn’t participate in many activities, and I began to spend time with students who often “misbehaved.”
When I turned twelve, however, I moved to a different town and people told a different story about me. The teachers there told me I was smart and quick. They focused on my successes and encouraged me as I learned. As my confidence grew, I began to play sports and join clubs. My coaches celebrated anytime I made progress on anything, creating the narrative that I was growing rapidly and on the trajectory to excellence. This was a completely different narrative than what I had grown up with to this point. Adopting the story that I could be excellent, I started to believe that I was in fact intelligent, that I had the capacity and drive to grow, and that I could achieve more than I could ever imagine. When I graduated from that school, I achieved the highest cumulative GPA in my class, received the Governor General Award, and received numerous scholarships based on community service, athletic excellence, and academic achievement. I even had the opportunity to speak in front of fifteen thousand people about why social justice is important to me, something I never could have fathomed as a ten-year-old who was consistently told that I would never achieve anything noteworthy. How my teachers and coaches told the story of my life completely changed the outcome of my life. This is the power of how we tell stories and what stories we choose to tell.
How have you been telling your story recently? How has this influenced your beliefs and actions? Take some time this week to reflect on this if you can. By changing the way you tell your story, you may alter the very course of your life.
About this Contributor:
Haeon Kang is a Publishing Assistant with Word Alive Press. She has a master's degree in theology and loves to read, create art, and play with her dog and bird during her down time.