Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Good-Stories-Experience

Good Stories, like this iris, illuminate a doorway—one otherwise easily missed; 
they transport us over the threshold of destiny.
       The purpose of Good Stories is to engage the power of the word. 
       Well, that’s one way to say it. Any web of words invites trouble, like “a murder of crows.” In this case, we’re invoking several potent 4-5 lettered ones: “power,” “word,” “story,” “good.” Such word-combos risk entangling us in confusion, making us frustrated in not securing the single right answer, and thereby cutting us off from the strength to act with conviction. We’re moved further instead of closer to the integrity of being and doing. 
        Because of these dangers, we need stories we can play with; but we have to make it serious play, like Vivian Paley tells so wonderfully, for example in Wally’s Stories and in A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Good Stories requires not just any tale but ones that carry deep truth and moral relevance. 
       And by “story” we have to go way beyond dead words on a page; we have to compose a dynamic flow of images that allow the participants, each individually, to meet up with, even to be confronted by, a chance to be touched by his and her destiny. It’s when we make that kind of live-story-experience that we’re in position to change worlds. Perhaps it’s better to say that we’re readied to have our world changed. 
       Good Stories draw us into a space, cognitive and affective, that transcends classroom walls. If we prematurely explain the power of narrative with terms like “hermeneutic phenomenology” (which happens to be one of my favorite phrases), we’re likely to push persons further from the needed encounter. The value of technical terms comes after having tasted the divine nectar where insight breaks open like the total mind/body lift-off when a horse responds to the rider’s thought, like when an imprisoning false belief disintegrates in the presence of deeper truth about the nature of love or inner peace or the compassion that dissolves a wall of separation. 
       This taste experience is birthed not in the technical term nor in the analysis of literature but in the personal encounter in story. For example, the narrative participant resonates with a character almost magically transforming, as in the namesake Hermes’ shape-shifting. The person feels that the story models in a beyond-words way a significant world-making turn. This experience with story is, of course, hermeneutic phenomenology; but the cognitive work needs to be scaffolded upon a powerful embodied experience such as that offered in Good Stories.
       All this has been explained long ago. The theory (e.g., hermeneutic phenomenology) is not new but it’s going wasted unless and until we reinvigorate the experience. For example, I could have been reading Richard Palmer’s Hermeneutics, publication date of 1969, way back in grad school. Almost fifty years ago, Palmer stated the problem quite clearly: 
Literary interpretation, by and large, is still generally seen as an exercise in the conceptual “dissection”... Students in literature classes are sometimes even told that their personal experience of a work is some kind of fallacy irrelevant to the analysis of the work. And professors, gathered in huge conventions, ritually bewail the fact that their students find literature “irrelevant”; but their technological conception of interpretation, with its undergirding metaphysics of realism, actually promotes the very irrelevance they ineffectually lament.“Science manipulates things and gives up living in them,” the late French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty tells us. (pp. 6-7)
      But if I had been assigned Palmer’s text in grad school without the hermeneutic experience involving a good-story engagement, the words likely would have spun around in my head without animating my being. In other words, they would have remained an academic exercise, possibly extending thought but almost certainly ending up disembodied. Explanation, fine as it is, isn’t enough.
      My initial impactful Good Stories experience came a decade or so after grad school through the hermetic fire spun by a masterful storyteller. The storytelling event, crucially, was also given in a context significantly infused with artistic interpretation and with translation into the tapestry of meaningful life. Proper incarnation of any important term (such as “power,” “word,” “story,” and “good”) depends crucially on articulating meaningful experience into nuanced explication through passionate storytelling.
       I believe the experience of Good Stories is much needed today because I see not only students but also their teachers still doing the conceptual dissection that Palmer names and it is still devoid of “living-in.” I believe the Good-Stories-experience builds an embodied consciousness and the awakened conscience that produce capacity, urgently needed today, to discern truth-tellers from lying manipulators. 
       Through Good Stories, we can make schooling so that words and stories transport us from "stupid" across the threshold into the affirmation of life’s purpose and destiny. One participant wrote at the end of the course:
Good Stories helped me grow as a person and develop more goals that I have set for myself in the future. I thought that these stories were stupid, but then came soon to realize that by connecting them to moments in my life, they are actually told to teach me life lessons that I will carry along with me forever.