Monthly Archives: December 2011

Stories with Eleanor, Part 2

Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs.   We talked about her work with teens in the high school youth group, her pastoral counseling, her experience of cancer, and most of all, her use of stories.  You can find the first part of our conversation here.
Jennifer: I’ve noticed that when you preach, you like to walk around and hold your printed page at your side. Did you have storytelling experience before you became a minister?  What are the mechanics of how you do what you do when you are preaching?  How did you come to that? How did you make that choice?
Eleanor: Well, as the baby of the family I was the entertainer! One of the first things I remember was mom teaching me “I’m a Little Teapot” and singing that for the family, and watching a lot of Shirley Temple movies. But I did not see that as a way to preach until I took a preaching class at [a UCC seminary near Boston]. The professor, who was also an ordained minister, was talking about narrative as the way of preaching that we were evolving toward. That the day of the 5-point essay had passed, and that that was an older style: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them” didn’t engage people at an emotional level. The books that we studied, Preaching From the Heart, and some others, focused on narrative. He showed us clips of, in some cases really conservative preachers, but who used storyteller style. I remember saying to him, “I have a really big hurdle to overcome, because I’ve been hearing my minister for years; I can’t preach like that and he’s a great preacher. “ And my teacher said, “Really, what’s his name?” And I said [his name] and my teacher said, “Never heard of him.” It sounded so seditious and yet it was very freeing! He said storytelling is the way that is coming. And I said, “oh, I know how to tell stories!” 
After that I began to deliberately cultivate and learn to tell stories better. I went to storytelling weekends and festivals to watch other storytellers talk about how you must use your body, or different voices, or just how they could paint a picture. So that has influenced my style. It was the affirmation of a teacher to say, “well, I never heard of this great preacher that you tell me you can’t preach like, but this thing that you can do, this is a valuable thing.” Somebody had to say to me that storytelling is a valuable thing.  So that’s where I can’t think of it for myself, and I need some outside person to paint it, which is why your [Lion’s Whiskers blog] stories about courage are so important. Because for some people, it will be the first time that they get a clue that there’s a different way to be in a situation. You know, how do we deal with a lion? We run away. We give up. Clearly I cannot deal with a lion, I know what lions are like. Or – there’s this other way! That’s why I love your blog on courage because those particular stories – they’re lifesaving. 
All these different kinds of courage – I love that too, because I come from a military family, I know what soldiers look like, especially when they come home from boot camp! I can’t do that kind of physical courage. But the courage to endure, to stay in a situation, and to not run away. I have developed more and more of that, of different kinds of courage. I like that there are different kinds of courage, and there are stories that show it, rather than just tell you. So people can see it. If you tell it as a story they see themselves in the story, and then they get to embody it. That’s the other reason why stories are important for children – they get to feel that vicarious thrill as Nancy Drew is scared to death but going up the stairs anyway.
Jennifer:  Yes, you are definitely preaching to the choir on this one! [Stories] taught me how – or maybe reinforced what I already knew – this hardwiring of how narrative works, and how we can have these mental rehearsals for experiences. “Well, I’ve never done that, but I might.” Or just looking around at the world as a child, you look at adults and you see adults doing adult things. So, “I’ve never driven a car, but at some point I will. I’ve never gotten married, but maybe someday when I’m older I will.” So stories give you a way of – instead of it just being a piece of information – “it seems pretty typical that when you grow up you get married” – but to imagine it and to basically go through this rehearsal of what that might be like, and what you think your participation in it will be.
Eleanor:  The rehearsal. What would it be like to move in that space? Which is also why it’s important to understand what are the stories that are the baseline stories that everybody knows in different cultures. If we know our story, we understand ourselves at a deeper level, but if we understand that in our culture – in America it’s the cowboy, the rugged individualist which has unfortunately run amok right now – but that’s our story, and it seems logical how we got to where we are today on that storyline. But what is the story for Arab countries? What is their story? What is the story in China or Japan? What are the Russian stories? Surely their stories have the same foundational effect and trajectory [for them] that ours do [for us.] So that’s why it’s important to know each other’s stories.
Recently I saw something about narrative medicine [at Columbia University]. And they’re calling people from the clergy to engage with this. The anecdote I read was that this chaplain was using this at a hospital with mental health patients – a psych hospital or psych ward – to share stories, to share their stories in the larger narrative of the Biblical story, and to help them maybe change their story or understand their story in a different way. And I became interested in that because I think that’s very powerful. And maybe that’s really where – not to negate all the cognitive therapy and behavioral mod – but I think it all happens at a deep story level. Can we place our stories inside some other big narrative? You know, the Bible has this narrative of: we start in a garden, we screw up, we end in a garden. It ends in a garden. God intervenes and makes sure we all come back to the garden in the end, so it has this very hopeful story arc. It goes to “love wins.” Everybody goes to heaven, even Gandhi! Many conservatives feel: nice guy, but he’s burning in hell because he didn’t accept Jesus.
Jennifer:  So do you see either ministry as a whole or your ministry as a way of helping people put their stories into context? Is that part of what you think of as your role?
Eleanor: I believe that our lives are made better when we put our stories into some integrative whole where we’re not isolated, which often we do to ourselves before even society does it, although society has plenty of ways of sidelining us. But that if we put our story – no matter how bad – into a bigger structure, we can thrive in a way that we hadn’t realized we could. I mean, Africans were brought here and were introduced to Christianity because it was the religion of their white masters who didn’t consider them fully human, only partially so, and yet they embraced it and it became part of how they flourished and lived, because the story itself is the story of liberation and love. I think Jesus’s message is:  the people who you think God really loves and the people you think God really hates, you’re wrong. It should make all of us very humble! So they were able to put their story of slavery into a bigger story: Joseph was sold into slavery, Joseph was watched over, and Joseph came to a place of prosperity. Okay. Maybe that’s possible for us. Or it is possible for us. Or childlessness. Or too many children, — all of these things are in there, which is why I know that the stories are true [on this level], because all of the human experience is in there. It’s why I like the Psalms. They’re whiny sometimes. Many of them start out – “how long, how long?” And they’re not guilt-ridden, it’s not “my life is so bad and I’ve caused this, please forgive me.” It’s “my life is so bad because You turned Your face away. You were off having a coffee and this wouldn’t have happened, so turn Your face back, because if You’d been paying attention this wouldn’t have happened, so pay attention!” They’re in your face. There is this wonderful relationship with and tension with the force of life that makes the green shoots to come up.
Jennifer:  So the Psalms are proposing some mutual accountability?
Eleanor:  Ah! And no matter if they start as “my pillow was wet with tears all night,” they end with “yet will I pay to the lord.” I really don’t think it’s a literary thing where they all have to end on a certain note. I think that when you engage with what it really feels like if you’re a person of faith, or even just sensitive to what’s going on, you understand that there’s something that keeps you breathing in and breathing out and keeps you going until breathing in and breathing out is not such an insult. I’ve talked to parents who’ve lost children, and breathing in and breathing out just hurts them, because they don’t want to be. They don’t have a present relationship with this energy. So yes, I think that’s what I’m doing with my ministry. People want their religion to be relevant in their daily life. It can’t just be a stained glass window that I go and look at and it’s really nice and beautiful. I appreciate the Tiffany glass exhibit in the museum, but I don’t live with Tiffany glass. I live with Corelleware. I need something that works with Corelleware. I think that finding your story within the larger trajectory helps you, because the story has its own power that pops up when you least expect it.
Jennifer: Tostoy has this wonderful quote about stories. He said all stories are either, “a man (or a woman) goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”  Does one of those feel like it lives in your life more than the other does?
Eleanor: The man goes on the journey feels like much of the Old Testament stories to me. And a stranger comes to town feels like the Gospels, especially with the Christmas story. The unexpectedness like “no, not really?!” It’s like you’re pushing someone out of the way, saying, “I’m here to see the Dalai Lama, I’ve been waiting in line,” and you’re pushing aside the Dalai Lama because he isn’t wearing his glasses and robes and just dressed in a t-shirt and you’re just “no, no get out of the way!” So, a stranger comes to town. I think that in many ways the stranger is God.
When I go on a journey, and I find that my faith is a journey, I often feel myself accompanied. But I don’t always see my companion. Not that my companion is invisible, it’s just that in my head I think I’m here all by myself. It’s like the two-year-old who thinks when you play peek-a-boo that you’re really not there. So in many ways we can see throughout the Bible that it is God who keeps faith – the prophets do a lot of yelling, but Jeremiah had this real pathos. God is like this 15-year-old girl who’s just waiting for the phone to ring and you never call! And you cheat on her with other girls! And it’s really this pulpy love. And it’s hard sometimes to believe that there’s this great power that has this pulpy love for me. I think many people feel they are slightly unworthy of this pulpy love, which is why their own hearts are hardened. So yes, I find myself on a journey, and have experienced that in times of trouble I find myself accompanied usually only in the rear-view mirror – it’s like I came through the really stressful survival mode, and it lightens up a little bit I can see there was this [companion] keeping watch over me and I can reconnect.
We finished our conversation by talking about the story of the Good Samaritan, which I’ve retold on this blog, and Eleanor talked about God as the annoying neighbor who asks challenging and cringe-making questions, not the nice one who comes over and shovels your sidewalk when it snows. To make clear how reviled the Samaritans were by the original audience of that story, and how problematic the tale would have been for them, she retold it this way: in her understanding of the story, if she were the traveler attacked on the road, the Samaritan would be one of those evangelical preachers who proclaims “God hates fags!” or who wants to burn the Koran. It would be that one who helped her, and tended her wounds, and paid for her to stay in a motel. “And then I’d have to deal with that,” she said, grimacing as she put her coat on against the December chill. “That’s how annoying God is.”
And that’s the power of stories.  Whatever your faith, whatever your traditions, we here at Lion’s Whiskers wish for you all good stories.  Be of good courage!

Talking Stories with Eleanor, Part 1

Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian- New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs.  She talked about stories, working with teens, about being a minister, about having cancer, and about being a minister with cancer.  Throughout our conversation were implicit and explicit observations about courage.   This is the first of two installments of that interview.
Jennifer: So, I have some questions for you about courage and about story. Let’s start with this. If somebody came to church on Sunday, somebody new in town, and there you are, you’re wearing your collar, your robe, and you have no hair. So they may quickly make certain assumptions about both your story, and your courage –
Eleanor:  I thought you were going to say, my orientation!
Jennifer:   Ha! No!  So whether their assumptions are correct or not, odds are that they are going to be making them. What’s your response to just the fact that that happens? That whereas somebody else may not present a whole lot of clues, for example –
Eleanor: Well, when I first came back to church [after treatment for cancer] I wore my little bald head. For a couple of reasons I needed to deal with it in the sermon and – well, now I can’t even remember what text I was preaching on that day – but somehow it was going to get around to this. And the other part of that is that I work with the teenagers all the time trying to get them to understand that who they are right now is the manifestation of God’s perfection, of life’s design. God for me is the power of life that was, is and ever shall be, whether human beings are at the top of the heap or not. So for me to put on a wig – and I’ve got one, I just can’t seem to wear it very comfortably! – seems to try to hide what is true for me and about me right now, which is that I am bald. So one side of it was trying to be true to the message that I send to the kids, and that I feel in myself, which is that it’s an act of courage to be self-revealing.
Jennifer: Yes, there’s a nakedness. You’ve got a very naked head! It’s so shiny!
Eleanor: Yes, I glow! But the other side of that was that I realized that my very appearance would kick up in people who saw me their stories about how cancer has touched them. For some of them, it would be frightening. And I don’t want to frighten them! So I talk openly about what’s going on with me, to help give extra information that the story that I bring up in you is your story, it’s not necessarily our story that’s happening right now. And I’ve also thought about this for Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is our big night – there might be between two and three hundred people there. And there will be people there who come on Christmas Eve and they come on Easter and they’re tangential – they’re connected to our church, and they consider our church to be their church or they just want to go to a church on Christmas Eve. But they don’t know me and my story, so the bald head will be new to them.
So I’m going, “Alright, should I try to wear something on my head and make this easier for them? This has to do again with bringing up their stories. The good part for me about going through this is that my job requires me to read and preach on the scriptures, the Bible, and for me, I believe that all of them are testimonies of faith. In the United Church of Christ we’re not doctrinal, so we see the traditions of the church – the traditional stories that come to us that are not part of the Bible but they’re part of the tradition, are testimonies of faith, they’re not tests. I don’t have to affirm that I believe in the virgin birth. I do and I don’t, in that I understand what they were trying to say, that Jesus always was a unique child of God, just as I believe each of us is a unique child of God, and it is in our uniqueness that we get closest to that [God]. So [I want] to embrace what it is about us that is unique rather than trying to plaster over those things that make us different. So being close to stories that are testimonies and I believe true expressions of what the writer was trying to get across [is meaningful to me].
The Bible gives you stories where you can say, “Oh, look at that.” But only if you wrestle with them. If you engage with them. Because if you take them literally, you miss, I believe, the true meaning of the story. It’s like, you’re on the cruise ship and you see the top of the water and you believe that what you can see from the top is the complete embodiment of all that the ocean holds. But if you sink down, you see something quite different. So if you take it literally, you’re looking for an ark on some mountain in Russia. Or you think it’s “just a story” and we have this bias against story. I think it comes from “don’t tell stories,” which means lie, or “don’t carry tales,” which means gossip. Or being a tattle-tale. So there’s a negative sense there. If we say that they are “just stories” we don’t even go looking for the ark. But if you look down and you think about “what does it mean” –
Jennifer: Or “why would somebody say that?”
Eleanor:  Exactly! In my experience of life, there have been times when I have just been – psssh – everything I knew just got swept away. I was just having to deal with something and I didn’t know how to deal with it. And yet something held me up. For me, something that seems to be there when my strength is failing is like the water that holds up the ark. And so I can see God’s faithfulness even when other people see – well, some of the little children say God blamed the animals and God killed the animals and that was not good, and what about the dinosaurs?! And then there’s “well, every culture has a flood story.” And they do. Even African creation stories have a flood story – so people say, “well, that’s just a memory of a flood and it doesn’t mean anything.” But no. I think that our stories, if we will engage with them, if we will be a little vulnerable to them, and let them change us, we can see how they can give us clues so we can survive and thrive.
I [am fascinated by] the Bible and specifically the Gospels – I just find Jesus of Nazareth so compelling and tricky – and you know it just blows me away trying to get a handle on him. I find him just such compelling person that it’s why I am a Christian, because I cannot look away from – as Einstein called him – “that luminous figure in our Gospels.” I consider the Gospels, the story of Jesus, the way of transformation. So if you think that the stories are “just stories” because they’ve admitted we can’t get any closer than a generation or so after his death and we know that the Gospels are faith proclamations, that they are not about reporting, they are about telling something that was true for that person – if you say, well we can’t know, then you don’t realize that it’s a way. In Mark’s Gospel, which is the earliest and simplest one, the word “way” is used – hmmm, 64 times? Jesus was always saying “follow me,” and so if you look at it that way, and you look in the story, and you use what has come to be called narrative criticism or literary criticism – instead of looking at historical criticism, saying what was the culture when the story was written, we say, let’s just look at the story as story. Where’s the action, where’s the tension, who’s the main character – if you step in that way and you actually try to live that, something transformative happens for you. 
So maybe we downgrade or degrade stories as a way of distancing ourselves from the challenge of: what if you took it seriously? Gandhi, once he read the Sermon on the Mount, made it a daily discipline – and he was asked, “how do you, as a Hindu, hear the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the poor in spirit, how do you think you hear that differently from Christians?” and Gandhi said, “Well, I think he meant it.” 
Jennifer:  Yes, “it’s just a story, so therefore I don’t have to read it very carefully.”  That’s an interesting point.  We can dismiss it [the story].
Eleanor. But children believe stories. And in many ways I think Jesus was saying, unless you become like a child, you miss the Kingdom of Heaven. Which I think he meant is here. That when you begin to live in this transformed way, everything is different. So unless you believe and then take it in…
Jennifer:  So this raises an interesting twist on my thesis. What you’re proposing is that people are actually afraid to engage with stories – is that fair to say?
Eleanor:   I think that some people can be afraid if they truly look at a story, there’s part of them that’s uncomfortable – some stories can make you uncomfortable, and for some people being out of their comfort zone is a very fearful place.
Jennifer:  Right. So, I’ve been promoting this idea that stories will help us develop our courage –
Eleanor:  Yes.
Jennifer:  You have to be able to approach the story in order for it to have an effect on you. If you can’t even approach the story then there isn’t going to be the development.
Eleanor:  There’s another piece: the wonder of stories. The cardinal rule for storytellers is: don’t explain the story. This is not some fable that has a summation line, or the old way where we said, “And so, dear Reader…” We don’t do that. We don’t explain a story. But stories are tricky. Stories have their own power, even when we’re afraid of that story, to wind around our ear and stick around –
Jennifer:  And get in!
Eleanor:   Yes! Yes, especially if as a storyteller you give enough detail that you start moving the furniture around in somebody else’s head. So if you say “and they gathered around the kitchen table” everybody sees a kitchen table. Now, mine looks different than yours does, and as long as I don’t tie it down too specifically to being a particular kind of kitchen table, you’re at the kitchen table too. So good stories can – so there’s the power of story. And many times the storyteller’s ability is only part of the delivery system, but the story has the power to stick with you. 
The story of the Lion’s Whiskers – I told that story at church at our last talent show, and I told it at a ministers’ retreat to a group of ministers because we were talking about story. And the ministers loved that story because of course it’s the Gospel story. The only way to get to the other side of this problem, or to fix it, is if I go in thinking I know what fixing it looks like, and I am transformed by trying to live the thing. The woman has to get the whisker from the live lion, and then she’s given new eyes to see that her child is like the lion, and she lives into a new reality. So the ministers have different ears and they hear yes, it’s the way.
to be continued… in the next installment we continue discussing the power of narrative to carry us through dark times


Up and Over the Black Belt Wall!

Lisa and Jennifer’s daughters at the end of their Black Belt test

Dr. Lisa’s Parent Coaching Tip:

Ask your child if there is something that he/she has achieved that they believe required them to have courage.  Ask them: “What did you learn about courage?”  Is there something they want to achieve that will surely take courage?  What type of courage will it take?  Check out our Six Types of Courage for some help defining what type of courage may be needed. 

The next time you are stuck solving some parenting problem, like your child wants to quit something he/she just started, or he/she is having conflict with a friend, or he/she just can’t get seem to get up and ready in the morning, ask your child: “What is your idea about how we are going to solve this problem?”  You can tell them you have some ideas, but that you value their opinion and believe it is part of their responsibility, too, to help solve this problem.  Depending on your child’s age, of course, you could ask them, “If we suddenly woke up tomorrow morning and we’d switched roles, you are now the parent and I am your child, and we still have this problem, what would you suggest we do?”

We’d love you to share some of your conversations about courage with your children in our COMMENTS section! 

Blessings on the journey! 

This Is Your Brain on Stories

I’ve offered a lot of traditional stories on Lion’s Whiskers over the last several months. How many of you are telling them to your kids? Maybe not a lot of you, and that’s okay! But I hope you have gathered something from these stories. What I hope you have picked up on is this: around the world, in every culture, people have been telling stories not simply for entertainment, but for creating metaphors for understanding their world. I also hope I can persuade you that some form of storytelling – whether with traditional narratives or your own “When I was a kid” yarns – can be a powerful parenting tool, and may help your kids to develop the six types of courage.

I’ve shared a lot of my own anecdotal observations about the power of storytelling, and posted lots of inspiring quotations about the role of stories in our lives. What’s fascinating and exciting is that cutting-edge brain science is beginning to back up the wisdom of the ages. Researchers from many disciplines are using fMRI brain scanning to investigate what actually happens in our brains when we listen to stories. The fields of advertising and journalism have always known how to harness the power of stories; but that power is now part of medical education and law schools, in tax compliance and political discourse, as part of proposed Alzheimer’s treatments, and part of the on-going discussion concerning whether an understanding of narrative can help explain wartime behaviors. Even the defense department is studying whether narrative approaches can help create military leaders with more moral courage.
I want to very briefly (as a layperson, children’s author, and researcher on the importance of story-telling in our culture) summarize some of the findings.
  •        Humans are hardwired for narrative. Evidence is mounting that we are natural storytellers, not by training or by culture, but by biology. The creation of metaphors for understanding our experience is automatic, which helps explain why being presented with facts is often insufficient for decision-making. When we create metaphors for information and experience, they fit more readily into a narrative frame and allow us to imagine how the story might end. Researchers such as Paul Bloom at Yale University’s Mind and Development Lab study babies to figure out how the imagination makes information processing possible, and use puppet plays (stories) to study babies’ moral judgement. “Story,” writes brain scientist Mark Turner, “is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories.”

  • . Oxytocin is released by stories. Oxytocin, the hormone associated with love and attachment, can be triggered by listening to stories. Oxytocin receptors are located in the pleasure centers of the brain; those stimuli that trigger the release of oxytocin (snuggling, for example) are the ones we seek rather than avoid. This tells us that listening to stories is an adaptation for survival. Oxytocin has also been linked to trust, empathy and moral behavior, and may thus be relevant for creating stable societies.
To an avid reader or storyteller, it’s stating the obvious to say that when we are immersed in a story, we feel excitement when the character feels excitement, grief when the character feels grief. We have all experienced the emotions of the characters we love, especially those with whom we empathize. But not only that, the areas of the brain that register motion are also stimulated when characters in story experience motion. When we say we are moved by a story, this is true in more ways than one. The brain lights up as if the listener (or reader) is actually in the story, fighting dragons and falling in love.
So how is this related to courage development in our children? Dr. Lisa has discussed oxytocin’s role in promoting attachment which contributes significantly to courage development and resiliency in children. If storytelling, too, triggers oxytocin release, then we can speculate  that storytelling also has a role in both deepening the connection in secure attachment relationships and inspiring courage and moral development in our children. On top of that, we have the connection between fear and uncertainty: because storytelling is a human adaptation for interpreting and making sense of experience, it may help reduce uncertainty, and by extension, reduce fear. Stories offer us the opportunity for mental, imaginative, neurobiological rehearsal of experiences we may encounter in the future. Just as champion athletes use visualization techniques to ready themselves for the contest to come (a form of storytelling), we can use stories to prepare ourselves and our children for the challenges of the future. 
Whether you retell the traditional stories I’ve offered on this blog, pick a book from my bookshelf to read your child, or you like sharing family stories and taking turns narrating your day’s events at dinnertime, stories are powerful, free and abundant. They are what make us human and inspire us all to have courage in life. As the Native American saying goes, “Take courage from the story.”