I am a small-time writer with a small-time blog, but recently I posted a piece that got really big really fast. I had been scared to post it. I was scared because it was personal. I was scared because it was political.
I posted it anyway, thinking “well, it won’t make much difference anyway. It’s just my little story,” but I could not have been more wrong. People responded to my story with comment after comment and email after email about how hearing an individual’s story had helped theme to see “the other side” of the debate for the first time, how the personal had cut through the rhetoric. My story encouraged others in turn to write and tell me their stories of how they have suffered under immigration laws. Hearing my story apparently opened up compassion in people who had not ever thought compassionately on the topic before. Sharing my story put a social justice issue on people’s hearts in a way that it had not been before.
Story telling has great power to effect change – great change – far beyond what politics or philosophy could possibly do. I think stories are powerful for three reasons in particular:
1. Stories are disarming.
In a world where opinions are thrown at us day in and day out, our natural tendency
is to keep ourselves braced against the onslaught of ideas and words. We read the news with our defenses at the ready. We listen to speeches with our BS-meters finely tuned.
A story, however, does not demand our attention or allegiance. It is an offering of one person’s life and point of view: it does not threaten, it does not demand change. It simply tells. Our generation values being heard, and so when people speak from the heart – we listen. A story can reach the places of the heart, places we generally keep shielded from politicians and activists.
- Stories cut through bias.
Our natural tendency is to sort people into categories: like us, and not like us. Our inherent bias finds it easy to regard those in our camp as being individuals, unique and distinct. On the flipside of that coin, we tend to believe that all those “in that camp” are all one way. We make these generalizations because it helps us sort through issues of identity, it is our natural sorting hat for classifying, understanding and articulating difference in the world. However, the dangerous side of our natural coping mechanism is that we always carry a set of beliefs about what “they” are like.
The power of the story of just one person is that it breaks open the “they” category, and reminds us of all the individuals in “that camp”. It allows us to feel compassion and empathy for those who are “not like us”, because for the first time the story reminds us that in some way, that person is a lot like us.
3. Stories allow us to choose our response.
In their ground-breaking book “Half the Sky”, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn challenged readers to respond to three specific social justice issues which affect women world wide. They had an armory of statistics and facts at their disposal, yet they chose to make their appeal by telling specific stories about individual women impacted by each plight.
Our brains cannot process facts like “there are 2 million sex slaves in the world right now”. We can, however, hear and understand the story of Suryesh, kidnapped from her family at 10, beaten by thugs and raped repeatedly each day until she submitted to the brothel owner. Big campaigns and huge numbers overwhelm us. We become immobilized by the enormity of the task, and change seems impossible. However, the story of one gives us a non-threatened space to respond: I cannot save 2 million, but I can make a difference to Suryesh.
Stories have the power to reach and to mobilize people far beyond the reach of politicians and power-mongers. In the quest for social justice then, here are two very powerful things you can do:
First: Share Your Story
The personal is political. If you have a story to tell, be brave and tell it. Tell your story of how your friend’s family got deported. Tell the story about the high school kids you work with and the things they go through. Tell your story about the poverty you’ve seen, the prejudices you’ve suffered, the abortion you went through. Share your story of loss, of mistakes made, of learning to hope through adversity. There is healing in the telling, and there is also healing for the hearers. Sharing your thoughts, your fears, your hurts can do far more to reach hearts than you might imagine.
Second: Share Someone Else’s Story.
By “share” here I don’t mean tell someone else’s secrets, I mean “share” in the internet sense of the word. I have a few dozen readers of my blog, a relatively small group of people who could hear my story. What made the story BIG was not so much my sharing, but that readers shared the story again and again. Every “like”, every “tweet”, every link emailed across the globe passed the story further and further. I shared my story with 200 people. A week later, it had been read by thousands.
Social media (used well) can allow us to do impactful work for for building bridges, for bringing understanding, for furthering social justice. Every click of a mouse sends a story’s ripple a little further into the pond, and allows that story to do it’s disarming, awareness-raising, compassion-building, change-bringing work.
Of course, the power of stories should not come as a surprise to us. The Great Storyteller Himself chose stories to teach, to rebuke, to illustrate, to challenge. He chose the gospels, four stories of His life, to be the means by which we see the face of the eternal and invisible God. And he chose us to tell His story, a story which, once heard, shapes people’s eternal destinies.
Share a story. Change the world.
You might also like this story: The pair at the door….