Over the last thirty years of my working life, my 25+ completely unrelated and varied jobs have led me to use or be involved with stories in numerous ways. From directly as a story writer or teller, to using them in teaching, to using them as a memory tool. However, the most powerful and interesting thing is the part they played when I worked for a number of years as a children’s school advocate, in which I spent each day, all day, listening to 9 to 12 year old children talk about whatever they wanted to say.
It is rare to have a job just listening to children. By this I mean most people who work with that age group tend to be doing a lot more talking than listening, and what listening they do manage is usually only for a response to what they’ve just said. So my role was special, unique even: my sole purpose was to help these children say whatever they wanted to say, and, if necessary, to whoever they wanted to say it.
What I found from this was that children only ever told stories. The stories may have been about what was happening at home and school, and were often heart-breaking (although the children themselves rarely saw it that way), but nonetheless there was always a narrative – a telling with a beginning, middle and (hoped for) end. They certainly had villains and heroes. I’m not a psychologist, but it did make me wonder if our natural state, the very nature of our minds, is to think in stories.
For example, I recall one boy of ten who was conversationally telling me that if someone bullied him he could ignore it if he’d had a good day, and if it was just one thing, but if it had been going on all day he’d lose his temper. “But that sounds normal to me,” I said. He looked doubtful. In fact his eyebrows went up a long way; like I’d said something very alien to him. “Ok,” I said, “Have you ever seen your teacher really lose her temper?” Apparently he had. “And,” I went on, “What happened just before? How did it get to that point?” He thought for a second then said it usually happened when everyone kept on talking, or being noisy or whatever for a long time and it had built up. “There you go,” I said. “That’s what you just said. That’s what happens to all of us. We get worn down by stuff and then it’s hard to cope.” He thought about it for a while, and then said this: “My temper used to be much worse; it was like really short. When I was younger, my cousin used to only have to say one thing and I’d snap. In the end they thought I had ADHD and took me to see a doctor. But it turned out I didn’t have ADHD.” “Oh,” I said, “Well that’s good then.” He nodded, and then added, almost as an afterthought. “Yeah, it turned out it was my cousin who had ADHD.”
He didn’t really understand why his words made me laugh, that he had just told a perfectly paced, humorous story. But he did enjoy my reaction.
I think most of us, both children and adults, tell stories to share ourselves, our realities. My gut feeling is that behind all the stories we tell is an actual need to do this. Maybe the early patterning that goes on in our brains is the preparation for that: to give us the ability to explain and display ourselves through our words. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that if we read children four stories a day it boosts their brain’s ability considerably: that the narratives and patterns of story stimulate brain neuron growth much more than simple conversation. That fact alone suggests the importance of storytelling as a skill for our well-being.
So when I talked back to the children, in answer to a question or dilemma they sought help for, I always tried to answer in story form too. Something that put a character much like themselves in a situation much like their own, who then found a way to sort out the problem – either with or without help from others (preferably without, since my job was to empower whenever possible). I do know it was popular, and that not only did they not mind my indirect answers, but that they noticed and preferred what I was doing. It worked better too – if I gave a direct answer, they understood it less. This success is illustrated by an account of a Native American council meeting, attended by a white man, in which a problem was presented and then several of the elders each told a story before the meeting abruptly ended. The white man did not understand what had happened, until it was explained to him that the problem had been discussed using the stories told.
If we stop and observe our children, we see that they are actively looking for stories. And they often want to watch or hear the same ones over and over, building that patterning and unconsciously analysing what it is about and what it is saying. The power of stories is not unknown, we know how much they can do. But perhaps we do not understand, so deeply, the actual need we have for them.
by Tim Chante
Imagine you were on a secret mission. Imagine it was so secret, even you didn’t know about it.
When Tohmas and Hamal sign up for a bargain-rate adventure holiday, they become unwitting pawns in a cosmic struggle of infinite proportions. Fortunately they have Priya, a karate black-belt biker to help them (if she can forgive Tohmas for dumping her in their last incarnation), and their two inexperienced but enthusiastic spirit guides. Plus the ONE of course.
(When the ONE Laughs is a light-hearted, metaphysical narrative that interweaves the answers to why life started, how God thinks, and where we’re all going, with the road-trip adventures of a biker girl, her soul mate, and a weird old man in comedy slippers and a duffle coat).
Since leaving school in the early 80s with no qualifications (due to a combination of dislexia and dysinterest), Tim has cared for dolphins in northern Spain; taught all manner of things from IT, to Waterskiing to English; guided spiritual tourists up Mount Sinai on camels and drunk ones around Mallorca on coaches, and even cared for house-plants in a deep dark valley of greenhouses in Cornwall. He has travelled through most of Europe, to India and the Middle East, and lived for a while in Spain and the USA. He now lives on the English east coast with his wife, author J.C. Piech, and has a grown up, adopted son.