Story Wisdom from The Spirituality of Imperfection: What We Used to Be Like, What Happened, and What We Are Like Now

Continuing my post about the wonderful book, The Spirituality of Imperfection

It was on page 63 that I finally began to understand the book’s subtitle: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. I want to share with you some of what the book says about storytelling and how important stories are for sharing our common humanity and imperfections. Here are some passages from The Spirituality of Imperfection:

Listen! Listen to stories. For what stories do, above all else, is hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves. Stories are mirrors of human be-ing, reflecting back our very essence. In a story, we come to know precisely the both/and, mixed-up-ed-ness of our very being. In the mirror of another’s story, we can discover our tragedy and our comedy — and therefore our very human-ness.

The stories that sustain a spirituality of imperfection are wisdom stories. They follow a temporal format, describing “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” Such stories, however, can do more: The sequential format makes it possible for other people’s stories to become part of “my” story. Sometimes, for example, hearing another person;’s story can occasion profound change. Telling the story of that change then follows the format of telling a story within my story: “Once upon a time, I did not understand this very well, but then I heard this story, and now I understand it very differently.”

When a [person] comes to you and tell you your own story, you know that your sins are forgiven. And when you are forgiven, you are healed.

Stories help us attend. And “attending” in a setting of storytelling and storylistening, helps us to remember… “Memory” is communal.” Thus, although a spirituality of imperfection insists, “Pay attention to yourself,” such attending is not self-centered self-seeking but an awareness of oneself as related to others, as a member of a community.

Spirituality’s long-standing connection to story and storytelling ensures that we will never be alone in the spiritual way of life. For whenever and wherever there is a storyteller, there will also be a storyhearer. In the communal act of telling and listening, listening and telling, the sense of belonging begins.

If we would listen, we must also tell; and if we would tell our stories, we need places where we can tell and listen.

It is … a human truth that we are able to listen only when we know that in time. we will be able to tell our own story. Perhaps the main benefit of thr storytelling format … is that it invites, enables, and teaches listening. When we are able to tell our storied, when we are urged to stand up and tell them, we learn respect for other people’s stories and for the need to tell them. The practice of telling stories gives birth to good listeners.

… Community is where we can learn and practice storytelling and its virtues.

That [sober alcoholic] way of life, [early AA members] discovered, could be learned and taught only through the process of telling stories — stories that disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.

Discovering a new “map” through storytelling:

When newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous become immersed in storytelling and storylistening, they begin to see the form and outline of a new map, which details where they are, and how they got there, and — most importantly — the way to get where they want to go. … Through the practice of hearing and telling stories, we discover and slowly learn to use a new “map,” a map that is more “right” because it is more useful for our purpose. … what happens in the remapping of storylistening and storytelling is that in telling our own story, we come to own the story that we tell.

At times … adulthood seems to consist of fending off others who try to impose on us their ideas of what our roles should be, their versions of our stories. Our spiritual problems stem, at least in part, from the fact that we continue to allow someone else to tell us our story.

Recovering our own story, our own spirituality:

The spiritual leaders recognized as “great” … invited their followers to question the handed-down maps by making their own maps — their own stories. Rather than trying to tell their listeners’ stories, rather than imposing interpretation, the sages and saints told the kind of stories that invited identification. For they understood what the ancients had discovered: The best way to help me find my story is to tell me your story.

More in the extended entry.

Why stories and storytelling are crucial in piercing denial:

The practice of telling stories of “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now” helps to make whole because it makes available one’s real identity. In bringing us face to face with our own imperfection, stories confront us with our self in a way that helps us to accept the ambiguity and mixed-up-ed-ness of our human be-ing. Storytelling helps us to create a “whole,” a whole that does not deny that it is made up of incongruous, fractured pieces, but whole nonetheless.

Storytelling in and of itself conveys that there are no quick fixes. The storytelling format of “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now,” emphasizes a process through time and so points to the healing of time. By telling of a past at work in the present, that story-format effects a kind of re-creation of self by the self. In presenting ourselves as we were, we exercise the right to recover possession of our present-dat existence. We do not recall the past for the past; story calls up the past in the present, for the present, making present that which gives meaning and value to today. “To create and in creating to be created” perfectly describes this kind of storytelling.

We cannot command precisely those realities that we most crave. But we can tell stories about them; and our paradox unlocks with the discovery that storytelling (and storylistening) opens us to the experiencing of those realities that we seek. The A.A. storytelling style of — the general format describing of “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now” shapes a language of recovery that acts as the key that opens the door to experiences that are spirituality. In telling our stories and in listening to the stories of others, we actually come to experience the powerful spiritual realities of Release, Gratitude, Humility, Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. … The “language of recovery” works not because those telling their stories describe experiences of Release, Gratitude, and so on, but because, in the very telling of their stories they actually experience those realities.

The vision of “giftedness” is transmitted through stories. Stories speak the language of the heart, giving us the means to express our gratitude.

When alcoholics stand up at A.A. Meetings and tell their stories, the experience of tolerance is almost palpable. Stories invite tolerance because they sensitize both hearers and tellers to the richness and complexity of our diverse possibilities. Each human being has his or her own story, and every story is unique. But the telling and hearing of those unique stories takes place in a setting where each participant is conscious of an identity rooted in limitation. … Stories founded in an identity defined by limitation and shared with others who acknowledge the same limitation involve less the “discussion of weakness” than than the acceptance that one has much to learn from others. Such storytelling testifies that one is teachable. For in the setting of A.A, storytelling and storylistening, two paradoxical things happen. First, participants discover their shared story; and second, they come to realize that each of their stories is unique. But the discovery of the shared story must precede the realization of uniqueness and difference: for only the foundation of shared weakness, shared limitation, and shared flawedness can sustain the openness to difference, the attitude of “teachableness,” and the vision that undergirds tolerance.

True community requires more than the sharing of stories — true community requires the discovery of a story that is shared.