I stopped making New Year’s Resolutions decades ago for one simple reason. I never kept them. In fact, I came close to breaking the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for the speed at which I broke them.
I was so good at breaking them that I developed a brilliant rationalization for my behavior. New Year’s Day is arbitrary. Depending on your cultural or religious background, the new year can begin at just about any time, so why plan to do anything special after January 1?
A Resolution Sneaks in Anyway
This year, though, was different.
In the middle of December, I got two big end of the year surprises. One friend asked me to help design and fund a huge new initiative. Another asked me to write a book with her.
It’s way too early to tell where those projects are heading, let alone write about them. However, Patricia Shafer, my likely co author, suggested that I read Christina Baldwin’s Storycatching and learn about her company, PeerSpirit, which got me thinking about one idea that will feature in the book, the project, and everything else I do in the year(s) to come—our need to redefine the stories we tell about ourselves and what we can (and can’t) do together, which is something I haven’t taken seriously enough over the last half century or so.
Then, my resolution got confirmed at the first meeting I went to in the new year. But, I ‘m getting ahead of myself.
So, let me turn back my personal clock back to my professional origin stories.
My Origin Story About the Power of Story
As an academic, I never joined the postmodern bandwagon with its emphasis on narratives. If anything, I resisted it.
I had already finished graduate school and started teaching and writing a few years before any of that became part of the academic mainstream. My quantitative social scientist side led me have doubts (at best) about research tools that started with the assumption that everything was relative or at least open to multiple interpretations.
Nonetheless, I knew that narratives/stories mattered long before I tried to read Foucault or Derrida.
Stories were not a big part of my life as a child. I don’t, for example, remember my parents reading me bedtime stories. No one in my family regaled me with stories about our European roots because the Holocaust cut off all ties between my grandparents and members of their family who didn’t come to the United States.
My “aha” moments about narratives came indirectly from my years as a camp counselor. It didn’t happen there at YMCA Camp Hazen, but at the end of my first hour as a college professor. I say indirectly because I wasn’t one of those campers or counselors who was blown away by the magic of tellling stories around a campfire, although I did enjoy both hearing and telling them.
Rather, I first glimpsed the power of story a decade later. As I was walking out of the first class I taught at Colby College in 1976, one of the students came up to me and timidly asked me if I had been his camp counselor when he was ten.
Sure enough. In fact, he had been one of my favorite campers ever.
To complicate the narrative even farther, Mark had outed himself as far more conservative than I was during the class. He even suggested that he was a Republican.
Yet, he was the same person I’d enjoyed ten years earlier, and he seemed as delightful at age twenty as he had been at age ten—despite his politics.
So, I had to dramatically adjust my personal story and do so quickly in two ways.
First, I realized that I could actually use our history to my advantage in the classroom because it made me seem more human and less, well, professor-like, to everyone in the room. That became easier when I discovered that another student of mine had grown up around the corner from me as a kid and yet another was the cousin of one of my best friends from grad school.
Second, I realized that the “narrative” of left wing Oberlin graduate teaching at far more conservative Colby might not be the best one to use while I was launching my career. So, I began thinking about how best I could work with students I disagreed with. That meant finding stories about the European public policies I taught about that made sense to them given their lived experiences that would grab them in ways that my beloved statistical evidence never could.
Ever since, I’ve anchored my work in what was then only a gut feeling that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our lives, and our communities matter more than all the quantitative evidence I could garner because the stories—not the statistics—hit the emotional cord that leads to understanding and, then, action.
To this day, people light up when I tell them the story and how it helped me become more human and humane in my students’ eyes. To this day, people laugh with me—and sometimes at me—when I talk about how this unexpected encounter led me to pivot the way I taught at the moment, but also opened the door to the kind of work that I do now in which I relish in working with people I disagree with.
Christina Baldwin Sets the Stage
Without boring you with too much detail about my history with someone I have lost track of again, let me stress three of the things about stories that Baldwin raises that are illustrated in my relationship with Mark and thousands of other people I’ve met in the almost half century since I reconnected with him.
Each evokes a statement she makes early in Storycatching when she described her reaction to a story she heard from a relative when she was a little girl.
My eyes filled with tears. “I wish I was there. I wish I was there, then.”
Story telling, sharing, and catching helps us make those wishes come true, however we define “there.”
Stories help us make sense of the world. I became a very different teacher because of that chance encounter. Mark had been a delightful camper when he was ten. Now, I had to deal with him as an adult who disagreed with me on just about everything. In the blink of a clichéd eye, I realized that I was going to be working with delightful young adults like Mark who loved Ronald Reagan. And, I often ask myself what would have happened in Mark had gone to Bowdoin or Bates and we never shared a classroom and reshared a life? Would I have ever come to grips with the fact that I had to work with people I disagree with, something that is still at the heart of my work today, even though the “stage” is real world politics rather than the classroom
Stories also shape how we deal with each other. The thing I liked most about Baldwin’s book (and liked least about postmodern critical theory) is her emphasis on the ways that our stories go a long way toward determining how we relate to each other. In particular, do we tell the same stories about the same phenomena? If not, how can we deal with our differences constructively? For me, that started with listening to Mark and my other students. Why were they more conservative than I was? How could we both learn from those differences? I found myself doing something that few academics on the left did in those days. I made certain I understood what they were saying, often by repeating it back to them so that I could make certain I got it right before I offered my own perspective. We then explored why we reached different conclusions and realized that it often came back to the story of who we each were. That made it possible to explore those “back stories” and learn more about each other in a less judgmental way. And, I can now look back at hundreds of intense but friendly discussions in which either my interlocutor or I began rethinking something we had recently felt all but totally certain about.
Sharing Stories help us see what is—and isn’t—possible. When we share our stories as well as our facts and figures, we can begin building trust in each other. We see each other more as whole human beings and less as stereotypes. Mark suddenly became more than just another conservative student. He was a former camper, from Connecticut’s Gold Coast, and an aspiring corporate lawyer. Sharing our stories helped us see the fun things we could do together in the classroom and beyond. To be sure, I’ve worked with students and others with whom story sharing did not readily open up new opportunities. Even in those circumstances, I understood where those people were coming from, saw them as whole human beings, and understood better how deep our disagreements were.
How This Changes My Work
I find Baldwin’s book inspiring because we now have plenty of evidence—of the kind my social science brain likes—that suggests that her kind of story telling is a great way to build the kinds of movements for social change I’ve been working for since the time when Mark was my camper and I was a student at Oberlin.
I’ve relearned the lesson I started learning that day in my classroom. Stories can do something that rarely happens when you rely primarily on facts and figure. You can touch people emotionally.
We may not end up agreeing. Mark and I never saw the issues of the late 1970s in the same way, but we still learned a lot from each other and were better people as a result.
By that same logic, I don’t expect to convince someone who is pro-life or thinks climate change is not that big a threat or who thinks teaching about structural racism is a threat to American values that I’m right. I can, however, understand where they are coming from and treat them with respect.
And then, maybe—just maybe—they might trust me enough to rethink some of their beliefs at least in part because they’ve seen me do the same.
I’ve seen that happen time and time again over the years on issues involving race, gender, marriage equality, climate change, and more.
What Else Has to be Done
Storycatching—or whatever label you prefer—won’t solve all of our problems. Regular readers know that I’m obsessed with taking social change to scale and doing so quickly. The tools I’ve described in this post don’t address scaling in part because this kind of work has to take place in dialogues between two individuals or, at most, a small group of people who are willing to hash things out over an extended period of time.
Still, I’m convinced that this is one of the places we have to start and have to emphasize.
At the beginning of this post, I suggested that I got some evidence that I was on the right track at the first Zoom event I went to this year. It involves another person I met when she was an undergraduate and how has changed my life at least as much as Mark has.
Yesterday, I attended this year’s version of the National Day of Dialogue whose sessions will soon be available to watch on line. It wasn’t only about story telling. We learned about a lot of other techniques people are using in doing what we call bridge building work that crosses our country’s ideological divides.
One of the breakout sessions I attended was led by Helen Kramer of Resetting the Table who was hosting a workshop on a video they made about that kind of bridge building. In 2019, Helen and her colleagues spent a month in rural Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois listening to the stories of people who lived in one of the most purple parts of the country. The video they made tracks the interactions among several of the people who participated in their workshops and listening sessions.
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