The Ethics of Storytelling

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, one of Rev. Dean’s Lenten sermons got me thinking about stories. Sad to say, but I have been mulling it ever since. His contention was that storytelling–he privileged the oral form (now that is an unusual feat for the average 70s-born American)–was both rapidly dying and critical to human existence. His text for the day was Genesis, specifically the story of Abraham and Sarah which, he noted, isn’t really about them at all so much as it is about human experience and wonder. Sharing of story and experience is critical to our humanity: “At the very least,” remarks Barbara Brown Taylor in her An Altar in the World (a book I highly recommend), “most of us need someone to tell our stories to” (91).

Rev. Dean contends that one of the most significant pieces of evangelism is telling our stories, and he framed his sermon on Genesis in this manner. We tell stories to preserve history, to teach ethics, to confirm, to entertain, and for a host of other reasons. I would suggest–*gentle poke in the ribs* that we write stories for similar reasons. Nevertheless, to tell our own stories in any capacity involves a certain amount of exposure; we cannot control, once the story begins, where it will go and who will attack. So, often, we do not tell out stories–about faith, life, fear, joy, nor anything else. We simply close ourselves off.

In later conversation, he also noted that I tell my story more than almost anyone he knows (which suggests to me that he’s not reading many blogs for I am a mere amateur, and I am not worthy of such a description), but that the Internet does afford a certain amount of safety. I don’t, for instance, have to watch my audience and gauge how the story needs to flow in order to keep their interest or ensure their understanding of my points. I simply write and hope. And obsess–you’d not believe how often I read and re-read posts in order to remedy flaws…invariably after I post them (bad English major, but typical English major, too).

Like Rev. Dean, I think that telling our stories–in whatever form we have access to–is important. In order to capture and understand the spirit of a person, one needs to know his or her story. Consider the number of times you may have changed your view of someone, based on coming to know “the rest of the story” (thank you, Paul Harvey). When we hear another person’s story, we acknowledge the humanity of the storyteller–and ourselves. But, only if we truly listen.

Time and again in my Lenten readings*, authors have pointed to the need to listen to the stories of others, to connect with our fellow human beings without incorporating these people into our own storylines. Taylor describes it thus: “At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed”(91). Chödrön says something similar in both books I read as a part of Lent, suggesting that we need to practice listening and to practice compassion as ways of getting outside our personal storylines (which differ from the stories themselves), which tend to be self-absorbed and prevent us from connecting with other humans. Even Warner got into the conversation, remarking that “I can’t be happy if I make the people around me miserable under the mistaken impression that their misery is not intimately connected with mine” (208).

Practice: Listening without judgment, telling without judgment, and existing in the world as community, not individuals with little to no interconnection with one another.

Many of us will hedge when approached about our stories, claiming that we have no story or that the audience would merely be bored. Many of us assume failure with our stories and the connections that might be formed from them. I blog, but I seldom spoke up in AA (I’ve written about this before, but suffice to say that AA wasn’t the space, place, or people I needed to survive sobriety–it does work, however, for a great many people and I strongly encourage anyone who is suffering the hell of addiction to find his or her way to one of the multitudinous AA, NA, etc meetings. Go online if you must, but find the space and share in the story). If you’ve never read the “Big Book,” check it out though the link (used book stores often have copies, too); it is replete with stories of lives drunken and sober. Addicts are encouraged to share our stories (and the non-addicts around us are often baffled and annoyed by what appears to be a bizarre compulsion to talk about addiction, recovery, and sobriety). The telling of stories has a two-fold significance. One, it connects the addict to others by offering up a slice of humanity; other addicts may hear themselves in the story–or hear features that feel familiar.

“Sobriety was like living with a color TV with the volume turned all the way up at first, after having lived with a mute Black & White.”

Yeah…totally got that metaphor when I heard it.

The second fundamental is a reminder. As Taylor remarks about the Desert Fathers, “The deeper reason they needed one another was to save them from the temptation of believing in their own self-sufficiency” (90). Check. Addiction is, in part, a violation of community, a fleeing from shared experience into a pseudo-protective shell of addictive experience (that shell would be an example of a storyline as Chödrön describes them–“I’m safe so long as I drink. I’m happy so long as I have my junk, and so forth). So, not telling ones story–not confessing it–can too easily result in forgetting or dismissing or getting involved in the false storylines again. Granted, quite frankly, how wonderful it would be sometimes to forget those stories, to not be reminded of what and who and how and why and where and how many. For all the ways in which forgetting would help the ego and help me buy into a storyline in which I am perfect (not addict, not forgetful, not compulsive, not me), there is a savage grace to recollection. It hurts L.A.M.F., but such recollection also points toward redemption, hope, and promise of better days to come.

Classic redemption motif: sin–>confession–>penance–>absolution**

Confession, public or private is significant in this process. I suppose blogging is something of a mixed bag in the world of confessions; some readers (most, I would think) know me in my non-kitsch life, but there is a certain amount of anonymity involved nonetheless. However, I am far more likely to confess here than verbally–Rikki, for instance, came to know of my addictions in these pages, rather than in a day-to-day exchange, though I if I were forced to identify a family-confessor, she would undoubtedly be the one. Of course, I’ve still not really talked about the matter with her–so she might very well have figured it out long before, for all I know.

Now, here’s the question, bringing it back to Rev. Dean…why is it easier to tell the story of addiction than the story of faith? Heh.


* I did finish the original 5, so I started Richard Wright’s Black Boy, in which I see thousands of interconnections to the other readings. Book 7 (should there be a need) will be another Armstrong book, this one about the Crusades and the effect of that history on contemporary activity. I opted not to use Gravity’s Rainbow after all…I mean I am already training for a marathon…I shouldn’t engage in too much self-abuse.

**Assuming your author was so kind, of course. I mean some Fausts still get ripped apart limb-from-limb, after all.


Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Warner, Brad. Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. Novato: New World Library, 2009.

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One response to “The Ethics of Storytelling

  1. karen-the-great

    You’re awesome.

    Now, go here and submit this posting (and play around with it!). Way too much fun for a Thursday evening. 🙂

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