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Friday, June 26, 2009

Made of Stories

Here is an interesting article that appeared in this morning's newspaper.

Universe is made of stories that keep us curious, human

"The universe is made up of stories, not atoms." - Muriel Rukheyser, American poet
The older I get the more convinced I am of the power of stories to heal or harm us. We may not remember dates or facts, but we store the stories of our lives deep within where they serve as barometers of our journeys through the days of our lives.
Stories last as long as we do or those who remember us. And if we really stretch our imaginations perhaps the narratives of our lives continue beyond the end of our last mortal chapter.
I don't believe our lives are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, as Shakespeare said. To the contrary, I believe the very meaning of our lives can be found in the stories we compose along the way.
When students ask about what textbook I will use for a class, I tell them to bring themselves, fully awake. The only textbook that makes sense is the one on which each of us writes, as common and unique as a snowflake.
From my vantage point, I see every life as chapters in a book of life. A chapter roughly corresponds to seven years - from infancy through old age if you are fortunate enough to last the biblical length of three score years and 10. But it's not the length of your book that matters most, but rather how well it is written and how many others it has impacted.
Every person I have known has a story to tell. It is sad, though, that few have the opportunity to do so because not many people take the time to listen. One of the greatest gifts one person can give another is taking the time to listen. When another person tells his story most of us are thinking ahead to what we are going to respond rather than just paying close attention to them.
Stories not only help heal but they can sometimes harm us as well. I think especially of those whose early stories were full of shame and guilt and betrayal and whose lives are attempts to cover up what has happened. But what I have witnessed is the amazing power of recovery by people who bravely faced their pasts and found the courage to change the story line and write a new chapter. The past is not always prologue; sometimes it is simply the means to develop a better plot with a new cast of characters.
The human universe is made up of stories, our own, those of others and what I call the great story of the human family on this small, blue planet circling a dying sun somewhere in a dark and expanding cosmos. The great story comes in the form of the many myths of the world's wisdom traditions. A myth is not necessarily about facts, although it may contain facts; it is, rather, a means of expressing deep truths that language sometimes fails to convey.
Every great wisdom tradition has stories about the origins of the universe, about how we arrived on this planet and whether there is some bigger tale being told in which we are only a small portion. And although we are tempted to ask whether such a myth is true or false, we often neglect to ask a deeper question that might help us live better: What truth does the story or myth convey?
Take one story out of one world tradition, the story of creation in Genesis in the Jewish tradition. Some believe in a real Adam and Eve. Others scoff at such a notion and go no further. But others ask the more illuminating question: What truth does the story convey?
One truth this story helps me understand is why there is so much human suffering on this planet - the problem of blaming others for our own shortcomings. When God wants to know who ate the fruit of the tree of life, Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and the poor snake has no one left to shoulder the responsibility.
And so human history unfolds as a great story of blaming others for our own mistakes, rather than accepting responsibility for them and writing a new chapter.
The universe is made up of stories - our own, for sure, but also those of the first cave dwellers who left behind their tales on the walls of caves. And as long as we inhabit this planet, our stories will continue to keep us curious, awake and human.
John C. Morgan is a former journalist and retired pastor who resides in Muhlenberg Township. He teaches ethics and philosophy at Reading Area Community College.

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