The power of story

Stories offers every person the chance to make a better world through the power of words.

Stories offers every person the chance to make a better world through the power of words.

by Christina Baldwin — 

True stories of ordinary people are the most inspiring experiences we share. Stories tell about action and stories inspire action. When we are stuck in traffic, we look for the story: Why is everybody stopped? We scan the radio stations. Finally, we creep over a rise and see bent metal and flashing lights. We have all driven by these scenes, grateful that we were not involved in the wreck. But, what if we are first on the scene? Then, we pull over, jump out and approach the wrecked vehicles, calling, “Are you all right?”

A young woman is bleeding, “My baby …” she says, “get my baby out!” This is a one-sentence story. Perhaps you are a 25-year-old car mechanic with a stranger’s baby crying in your tattooed arms and you start singing a Polish lullaby your grandmother taught you.

The child calms and you tell the mother, “Here, take my bandana and apply pressure to that cut on your forehead. I think you are okay; it is mostly blood.” This is a life-changing story activated by one event. Soon the patrol cars come, the ambulance comes and someone takes the baby. It is all over, except your arms feel empty and you cannot stop humming that lullaby.

Stories change what we believe about ourselves. You tell the story over and over — each time remembering the woman, the baby and how you felt in that moment. You start collecting baby blankets and teddy bears to be carried in local highway patrol cars. A television station calls and you are on the local 6 o’clock news. Later you hear that someone started the same movement in another city, and another, and another.

By telling the story, you understand the experience, imbedding it into your memory. The stories that grow from such moments can travel way beyond the lives of anyone directly involved. In the age of global communication, someone across the world can say, “Hey, I read about this guy … this mother … this baby …”

The young man could have driven by. But instead, he chose a reaction and lived out a story that made him a hero. When we share our actions through story, we give other people inspiration, information and courage to act. When we risk being the better part of ourselves, we make a better world.

Stories offers every person the chance to make a better world through the power of words.

Want to fulfill your personal dreams? Carry a story in which you are capable of doing the things you want with your life and then live up to it. A little girl wanted to be a dancer. She was not automatically good at it — she just practiced. She is not famous, but she is a good dancer with a local troupe. Life stories can be realistic and daring.

Want to help others develop a helpful story? A kindergarten teacher heard a student say, “I cannot do that.” She asked, “What would you need to believe in yourself?”

“To be strong like a lion,” answered the student.

“OK,” she said. “Let us make a story about you and a friendly lion that helps you grow into a strong and caring person.” Stories support people’s imaginations.

Want a better neighborhood, workplace or organization? The next time someone says, “Jim is always blocking constructive action. I just cannot work with him,” tell the story about the time you got snowed into the parking lot and there was Jim, shoveling you out. Stories can highlight actions that shift our expectations of each other.

Want a kinder community or country? We can hear each others’ stories in ways we cannot hear each others’ opinions. Two neighbors, one Republican, one Democrat, found shared values in recycling when they walked a roadside clean-up crew together. It gave them a way to begin discovering commonality. Stories champion human goodness, however it shows up.

Two people can have almost identical experiences and create very different stories from them. Stories give us the power to choose: we can turn tragedy into triumph and we can turn triumph into tragedy. When we practice the power of story, we help set loose the stories that make for happier lives.

Here are some other examples of actions people have taken to change their perspectives, to consequently change their stories into more positive and powerful experiences:

  • A parent and a teenager, caught in misunderstanding, went camping. They put questions for each other into a hat and drew out the slips of paper, one at a time.
  • A couple set aside one hour a month to read to each other from their journals: not commenting, just listening to the private story of their partner’s life.
  • A team of people assigned a difficult task decided to write their strategic plan as a mythic story and then fulfill their roles as heroes and helpers.

When we know each other at the level of story, we create relationship and community. Life is richer. Streets are safer. All it takes is a little courage to turn to someone and start a conversation: What is your favorite birthday? Who’s been your most creative teacher? What is the best thing that happened to you last year? When did you take a risk that turned out really well? Let us tell each other those stories.


Christina Baldwin has taught seminars internationally for over 30 years and is the author of several books, including Storycatcher, Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 24, Number 5, October/November 2005

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