Friday, March 2, 2007

Telling Stories

It is tempting to think that we have named our temptations, but no single story, no single theory or system, no matter how wonderful or profound it may be, can hold the sheer variety of life’s truth. As if that weren’t enough, it is also true that no single story can hold a single meaning. A great deal of what a story will be depends upon how, and to whom, we tell it.

A great deal also depends upon how, and from whom, we hear it.

We’ve all been to a family gathering, shared a memory that affected us deeply, perhaps even changed the course of our life, when all of a sudden someone else, a sister, a brother, a parent blurts out “You know perfectly well it didn’t happen that way. I was there.”

And if I can manage not to feel angry or accused, perhaps I can hold that day and even see my memory from another’s perspective, for in all likelihood, both memories are correct. Living on One Earth is about learning to trust different versions of the same story, to trust that these, in turn, may become parts of a story even larger than that. Just as many genera and species create a healthy biological ecosystem, there are narrative ecosystems as well. And a healthy community of truth will have many different perspectives.

A scientist friend asked me once how I could live with the fact that the four Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus did not agree with each other. How could I ever know what really happened? Or whether it even did happen?

It occurred to me in light of that good, scientific question, that I have never expected certainty, or even accuracy in what I hear, but do want meaning, or the sense of what a story is trying to teach me about being human, being alive. Unlike the scientist who seeks reliable patterns from which to map the processes of nature, as a storyteller, I revel in the deep truth of the unexpected. My favorite moments in reading are inevitably the throwaway lines. I dread certainty. Certainty feels like death, because once a thing is certain, it might just lie beyond change. Certainty takes away my capacity to be surprised, to feel wonder, even to play.

At the Point Seven Now conference, held in San Francisco and sponsored by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Archdiocese, Peter Kimeu, educator and Catholic Relief Services director from Kenya explained to us that the real success of the Millennium Development Goals depends upon listening to the human stories of people quite different from ourselves. “Go to the villages and listen to our stories. Listen to our songs. Feel our joys and sorrows in living. Listen to the rustling of leaves and the songs of birds.”

Peter Kimeu speaks of the global village as if it were Nazareth or Capernaum or Bethany, for this is precisely what Jesus did. He walked around and he listened to people. He listened to John the Baptist. He listened to the cries of people deformed by sickness and anxiety. He watched the morning sky and the growing season. He said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45)

To live together on One Earth, God waits for each of us to find our true, growing, self. We cannot submit to others’ global plans for us, because we are neither certainties nor statistics nor specimens in a dish. This is what democracy, so imperfectly, strives to teach. To a Christian, this is why God chose not to manage us in top-down style, but sank to the very bottom and became Jesus of Nazareth.

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