Creating a Culture of Peace

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Story Time

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"Don't forget your mother's emotional outburst: 'They told us it was safe! They told us it was safe!' You shouldn't leave out that part." As strange as it seemed, I was being corrected on my own biography as I had shared it in a keynote speech at the Pax Christi National Conference. Someone who had heard me speak once before felt I had omitted an important part of the story from her point of view. "Can I get a copy of your opening talk--it was so inspiring?" another asked. Unfortunately, I could offer only pencil notes on index cards. "What made you change your goals?" asked another. I had to admit that memories and insights about my past were surfacing all the time, and I was still trying to understand my own journey. Wasn't it that way for everyone?

Over the next few days, individuals continued to seek conversation with me about my story and inevitably began to share their own stories. Together, we were living the conference theme, "Many Stories, One Vision for a Nuclear Free World."

Like the mainstream media, those of us who work for justice and peace recognize how stories of otherwise ordinary people can grip an audience, educate and even transform public opinion. Who would dispute the powerful witness of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead U.S. soldier; or of the touring Hibakusha survivors of the nuclear bombing of Japan and the 9-11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; or of whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Israeli nuclear engineer Mordecai Vanunu? Their personal stories and commentaries speak for thousands of others and effectively challenge powerholders' sophisticated war propaganda.

As ordinary people ourselves, we, too, have the power to provide hope and imagination for others. By sharing our stories, we can substantiate for others the creativity and persistence of the human spirit. That in spite of mistakes and blindness, even after our complicity, naivete and cowardice, and beyond obstacles and opposition, there will be mentors and companions and spiritual resources along the way. That there will be lessons to learn, and changes imposed, and risks to take. That inevitably there will be suffering, but also renewal. By foregoing conventional resumes and describing with some humility the twists and turns of our own personal journeys, we can become "real" for others. Our stories will become an authentic resource of experience, wisdom and knowledge for our listeners, and they will be able to extract what they need for their own time and place. Sharing personal stories has the potential to promote a sense of community and common humanity, to build capacity for empathy and compassion and to decrease self-righteous judgment of others, including ourselves.

Our storytelling changes us, as well as our listeners. As our selection of events and descriptive words varies slightly with each retelling, we will expose hidden themes. As listeners respond, affirm, question, and reveal connections between our stories and their lives, their commentaries will enlarge our own understanding. We may reconsider the significance of past experiences and remember some we have forgotten. Unexpected insights will prompt further reflection and may even provide a sense of relief and increased confidence. Then we will reshape our stories, and they will become more intriguing and powerful. By becoming both storyteller and audience, we will be renewed.

We remember stories we are told. We may not recall the details of sermons, lectures, analysis, recitations of history or statistics, but stories seem to endure, to carry meaning and inspiration. We pass them on to others. Perhaps it is because stories create mental images more durable than bar graphs and pie charts. Or because they are demonstrably "real" and not mediated through reporters and commentators, interpreters and experts. They mirror the multiple themes and layers and web-like interconnections of actual lives. They weave together inner and outer journeys. With oral tradition clearly in our genes, we will continue to be captivated by the mysterious power of storytelling.

For all of us ordinary people, here is the Challenge. When we are trying to touch the hearts of others, let us remember to tell our own stories. If we really want people to remember a message about justice and peace, let us wrap it around our stories. When our spirits are low, when old strategies and ideas seem ineffective, or group bonds weaken, let us share our stories. In every nonviolence training, every justice and peace gathering, every organizing meeting, let us release the mysterious energy present in our personal stories. They won't put us to sleep. They may wake us up. Ordinary stories have the potential to nurture extraordinary change.

So--now it's story time.



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Creating a Culture of Peace