Sunday, September 21, 2014

Good Story/Bad Story

Fresh from the first workshop of my series “Tell Me a Story,” the sluice-gates are open and it’s 4th of July in my brain, synapses firing like glorious fireworks with accompanying “ooh’s” and “aaah’s”. At the end of a fun, laugh-filled, music-energized day with some 30 beautiful souls, I tried to summarize my thoughts about the role of stories in music education and our lives our general. The horizon expanded far beyond using instruments to accompany a little folk tale. To say the least. So my thought here is to start sailing out over an ocean of ways that stories define, frame, enliven, express and generally create out daily experience and the person we become and are becoming. A little series, as it were, on this blog (itself my personal unfolding story of what it means to be a traveling music teacher.)

The first point:

• It’s ALL story. There’s not story and news, story and facts, story and objective truth. Religion, science, history (his-story—and what about her-story or their-story?), even math— it’s all story with a supporting cast of characters, a framework (often invisible) of assumptions and agreed-upon conditions and plots that keep shifting according to the new revelations of the time or previously omitted points of view from other groups of people and cultures.

• What is dangerous is story disguised as truth. Jon Stewart believes in his point of view, but is clear that it’s a story that either aligns with your own worldview, helps you consider things from a new angle, challenges and confronts your assumptions—or not. Humor is a good sign that there’s flexibility in one’s perception of truth. What is dangerous is story unaware that it’s story arrogantly and humorlessly presented as truth. I’m thinking Fox News here. I’m thinking of history told by the winners with vested interests in how the story is presented to preserve their privilege and power. I’m thinking of religion presented by those desperately clinging to their need to believe that their way is THE way. And so on.

• If we accept that we live at the crossroads of multiple stories, then the question becomes “Which kind of stories will we choose to follow? Which will we add our voice to? Which are worthy of our loyalty, which will shape our character, which will define how we move through the day? And which part of our human possibility will be drawn forth? In short, what are good stories and which are bad stories and how can we know which is which?”

Ah, there’s a question. And I have an answer. Not THE answer, but my answer and offered here for your consideration.

Good stories help and heal, widen perspective, open us up, include rather than exclude, accent “we” over “us and them,” bring joy and laughter, have room for sorrow and grief, pluck the strings of our potential for empathy, compassion, understanding and love, accent a sense of belonging “over and over announcing our place in the family of things,” lean to the miraculous, to wonder and to mystery, create a comfort with questions that don’t need pre-packaged answers, are life-affirming.

A few good stories: The Gaia Theory, Civil Rights, women’s rights, gay rights, born whole with Buddha-nature, Montessori schools, sustainability, arts in schools. You get the picture.

Bad stories hurt and harm, narrow perspective, shut us down, exclude rather than include, set us apart and posit an “us” in-group and “them” out-group to be dismissed, shunned, exploited, enslaved, murdered, create suffering, block out genuine sorrow and grief, bang away at the out-of-tune notes of judgment, anger, cynicism, hatred, make us feel alone in an uncaring universe, make us vulnerable and dependent on someone else’s answers, are death-dealing.

Some examples of bad stories: The theory of racial superiority, Manifest Destiny, God’s chosen people, male privilege and power, Original Sin (born tainted and accused of murdering someone I never met), witch-burning, spare the rod and spoil the child, the Tea Party, Jim Crow and Apartheid, homophobia, no arts in schools, etc.

Next time you’re faced with the news or a point of view or a dogma or a theory, treat it as a story and run it through the above criteria— helping and healing or hurting and harming, opening us up or closing us down, widening perspective or narrowing it, generating thought or feeding ignorance, moving toward compassion or fueling hatred, accepting of complexity or simplistic? That’s my mega-story that helps me navigate through all the other stories and it has proven to be a reliable and useful guide. Make your own— what does a good story mean to you, what is a bad one? And then choose accordingly.

More to come.

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