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Breaking open story

Sunrise over Auckland Harbour

In my very first blog I spoke about story as it is ultimately my belief in the power of story that motivated me to begin the blog. That first blog was probably a bit of an introduction and it has dawned on me that I really need to deepen and break open story more. What is story and why does it mean so much to me?

In my work, I often find myself in a situation where I have ‘no idea’ – where I feel blocked, stuck and just do not know where to go. In each of these times I have learnt to share story, to invite story, listen to story, listen for story and then allow the spirit of the Universe to do its work.

Too often in my life I have been struck by people and circumstances where one group have labelled another group, or one person another person and everything in me is screaming, “But you don’t know them!” I have worked with young people for most of my life. If I had a dollar for every time a young person has labelled another a ‘loser’ or some other term and then – after spending time with them and getting to know them says to me, “Wow, he is a wonderful person!”

Working with the homeless and refugees

For some fifteen years I had the privilege of sitting at the side of a city square and together with young men from the Brothers’ school where I was working – listen to and share story with the homeless of our city. They were sacred times. Every tired, lined face that made its way to the back of ‘Eddie’s Van’ had a story. No-one freely chooses to live on the streets – no-one freely chooses to sleep under a bush with the back wall of the toilet block in the Botanical Gardens as your half cover from rain and cold. When those same students came onto the streets with me and met and chatted with and spent quality time with those same homeless people – especially over a longer period of time – labels faded away and were replaced with friendships and more importantly understanding.

For another eight years of my privileged ministry as ‘Brother’ I broke open story with recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers released from detention centres. Despite barriers of language and vast differences in life experience – we could laugh and cry our way into relationship based on the sharing of story. Balghais (an Iranian asylum seeker) as she proudly, in broken English, shared with me her excitement that little Ali might finally have a chance of a schooling in a world not surrounded by fear – and Hussain (her husband) who patiently and with some degree of humour – shared with me that I had dropped him off, some months earlier, at a Mosque for a Muslim holy day that belonged to a different branch of Islam – and yet was so grateful as he saw the goodness of my intent.

Story is sacred

Story is sacred. It is our narrative – our reflection on our life’s journey. Our story (who I am) is innately good; not that there have not been difficult times in that story and on that journey – but beneath these things – there is an innate beauty and goodness. Our story is the sum of the myriad people and life experiences that have come our way and in good times and in bad, in good ways and in bad – made us who we are today. As I said in the very first post, story is neither good nor bad, better nor best. I can’t say, “My story is better than yours!” I can’t say, “Your story is wrong!” Sure, someone may confuse the facts of ‘a story’ – but that is not the meaning of story as we are engaging with it here. Each and every story – because it is you – is noble and wrapped in dignity. Story is that inner map – that inner journey – those footsteps through a world of the refugee camp, or the substance abusing ‘care-giver’, or the absent father, or the co-dependent adult, or the loved and loving figure who was truly free and allowed your story to gain its own wings.

Every person’s story has its ups and downs, its cross road times, its times of agony and loss and its times of ecstasy! Our stories begin with mystery. It is a mystery that each of us is born into a particular time and culture, a particular family and context. None of us had a choice in that. It is gift. Our story is made up of the millions of small choices of what we have done as we have journeyed our story.

Refugee Rally in Melbourne, Australia.

Forms of Story

Story has many forms. There is the story which is us at our deepest level. There is story which is fable – a lesson that someone wishes to teach and they wrap it in the magic of make-believe. There is the story of any community or club or organisation with its faces and names, its rituals and events, its triumphs and its defeats, its heroes and it’s behind the scenes ‘little people’. There is story shared around camp-fire which tells and shares that tribe or family’s journey. There is story expressed in art, in poetry, in dance, in song. We share story at special times; when a loved one has died, at the birth of a child, when relationship and commitment are celebrated, when we recall significant people and events from our journey.

Story Tellers

Often – communities and extended families have their ‘story tellers’ who pass on through myth and legend the significant people and events that have led them as family or community or nation to this point in time. Many Indigenous communities have their story tellers and it is a sacred role within the tribe or community. Some of my most precious family times have been when the extended family is home in Proserpine at Christmas and we sit under the mango trees for hour after hour and we share story. My mother Zena was our story teller and now my two older brothers are.

Who in your life – whether in family or some group you belong to – has been the story teller? How important are they? Why?

The Universe Story

One of our profound realisations at this time in history is that we are all part of a much bigger story – the 13.7 billion year journey of our Universe. We, each of us, is stardust and is intimately interconnected and interdependent upon all of life – all the stardust around us. We are part of this web that we call life – we are not above it or superior to it but intimately part of it. For thousands of years our Indigenous brothers and sisters have walked gently on the Earth, gathered around campfire, listened to the seasons and through myth and legend, poetry, song and dance told the story of mother Earth. Sadly too many of us have forgotten this sacred story.

The Power of Story

When we get in touch with our own story – we understand self and the world better. We begin to understand why that person hooks our anger and why that person inspires us to be our best selves. Story is the bridge to understanding. Prior to the sharing of story we can be trapped in labels – relating to labels. We label the other as refugee, trouble maker, feminist, greenie, religious, fanatic ….whatever and the second we do that we limit them and we limit ourselves. Our label blocks understanding. Our labelling traps us in our prejudice, in our prior understandings linked to media portrayals, the bleat of the pack, the influence of family, the bias derived from one off situations and experiences and more. Once we find the time and the courage to break open the story of our lives with the other whose label limits our understanding of them we discover so much in common. We begin to see that beyond our preconceptions and our limited knowledge of who they really are – there is much in their life journey that speaks to mine. This sharing – to be liberating – does NOT require the other to change. All that is important is that by our listening to their sacred story we grow in understanding and appreciation of who they are and where they have come from. It may not lead to us agreeing with them – in fact it often does not – but that is not the point; it is the growth in appreciation and understanding that is important.

While all of us have had our share of pain and suffering on our journeys those times do not define us. We are not victims of our story – especially when it has much pain and loss. We can re-story. You cannot undo the past: it is as it is. But we can deliberately choose to be totally present in and to the present moment and in that moment choose life, choose self – free and loving and forgiving. To re-story is a psychological technique sometimes used in counselling. We have ALL had times of hurt and rejection and failure in our lives – sometimes deeply – but we are NOT trapped by these. It is not fatalistic. That is the beautiful thing about story – we can choose to write the next chapter using the pen of courage and determination.

I am not sure if it is reality or fiction but I was once told the story about an American researcher who worked with fifty Jewish mothers and fifty Palestinian mothers whose shared history had taught them to hate and fear one another. The researcher gathered the women for several days at a Conference Centre. At first the tension in the air was palpable. But then the researcher invited them to spend time reflecting on several key questions; What was it like when they first got pregnant? What was it like when they held their first child in their arms? What was it like the first time their child walked or spoke a word? What was it like to bring up a child in a context of fear? The researcher then divided the women in pairs and then in fours – one Jewish and one Palestinian woman – and invited them to share their answers. They were sharing story – NOT as Jew or Palestinian but as women, as mothers. The labels of Jew and Palestinian quickly gave way and the energy in the room was significant as mother shared with mother. Quickly there were photos been exchanged, laughter in the room, tears and more. Over the days of their time together the energy of shared story centred on motherhood worked magic and created a bond way beyond history and prejudice to a shared intimate experience of their humanity.

Think of the really significant people and events in your lives. Was there an element of ‘story’ there?

Why is story so powerful?

Story has credibility; you can question someone’s beliefs or thinking but you can’t question their journey – their experiences – their story. We listen to story – it captures us – almost without exception when we hear another’s story it will TOUCH something in ours. When you share story you ‘go beyond’ – go past – go deeper. Past the surface. By sharing story we are saying, “This is me!” There is no pretend in REAL story. Story – however told or shared or engaged with [movement, journaling, art, poetry, a personal letter, photos, yarning, silence etc] gives a coat-hanger for a better expression of meaning. Story moves you from the head to the heart – and it is “only with the heart that one can see rightly!” {The Little Prince}

Story has no BEST and BETTER and WORSE – my story, your story is THAT – it is my / your story and therefore it IS SACRED. Sadly too many people want to ‘compare’ stories. Story has no expectations – other than that which others may place upon it – then it can become manipulation. Story of its nature – has an inbuilt sense of JOURNEY. Story takes us into the sacred ground of feelings – whether it be humour or pathos or intimacy or sadness or relief. Remember a time at a wedding or funeral when the story is shared?

Story releases energy. Story will unblock energy. When a group is locked into the head or a relationship is locked in the head – the sharing of story will often unblock this. This brings me back to my dictum, “When in doubt – share story!” When you are blocked – especially in a relationship and you just share how you are feeling – your story at that point in time – wonderful things happen, especially when the sharing of story is reciprocal.

We must come as GUEST to the sharing of story and to the listening to story. We don’t come with answers, with our quick response. Often the doorway to story is FEELINGS and behind that story is another doorway of feelings leading to another level of story and so on. When you are in the sacred place of sharing story you don’t have to do anything, especially don’t manipulate it, use it, twist it to your own ends, evaluate it – if you find yourself judging the other as they share story you are not neither coming as guest nor being present. Just be in the space of story; be present for story simply IS.

Story loses its power when we THINK we know what is ‘coming next.’ Story must be allowed to surprise us. We must constantly choose again to be present to the story teller and the story. Whether the story is true or not in some cases does not matter.

You can’t force story and the sharing of story. It is always invitational – our role is to create the environment where it can be shared safely and willingly. But there is always the element of RISK in the sharing of story – but to venture out to the edge of our comfort zone is where life will truly be lived. This invitational space of deep listening will at times require some self-emptying – to create space for mystery, for letting go, for more, for other, for surprise, for unlearning and for true learning. This journey will be a slow one – more a dance than a journey – a deep, sensitive, sensuous being with the other and with the music within self. The dance itself, like the story or the journey – has a truth and rightness in itself.

When we share story or are present to another’s story it is the relationship, the listening and the presence that are important. In so many ways the facts of what is being shared are not that important; provided the other feels heard – feels listened to. When working with the students as they were going out to be with the homeless or refugees or asylum seekers I would always remind them that each person they were to meet has a sacred story that has brought them to be who and where they are today. Our role was NOT to get to know the facts of their story but just to know and sense that there is one there – that was all that mattered. When we did this – not prying into their personal lives but simply being present – they (the other) sensed this and their crap detector did NOT go off – they felt heard even if they had not said a word.

Sure there are times when there are aspects of our story that we need a professional to walk beside you and unlock some element of story. Sometimes a trauma from our childhood needs professional help to unblock and heal, sometimes a complex series of painful events can do the same and lead us to seek professional help. But while this is true never underestimate the power of the friend who listens with the heart.

Story silences ‘ego’. Story shared invites compassion and empathy. Story leads to true understanding. Story breaks a dualistic response that wants to label interactions as ‘us-them’, ‘right-wrong’, ‘good-bad’, ‘saved-damned’, ‘in-out’ and more.

Sometimes as we gently break open story there will be need for silence, for holding – holding self or the other. There will be the need to take a different path than the one planned in the freshness of the morning and at times even to stop the journey and rest awhile; all is good – for it is the heart that is doing the listening and the story telling and the heart beats to its own unique drum.

The response of one heart to the story of another will be as varied as the stories themselves. Some will respond with deep respect filled silence, others through touch, others through honouring the still voice that arose within them as they heart listened, others through tears and some through laughter; all are the strings and instruments of the orchestra. But respond we must – for the sharing story heart puts itself out there and is vulnerable. That heart has a need to be honoured and heard.

As I said earlier it is the sharing of story that matters not the words – the fine phrases or the crafted word. The heart will hear the heart and that is all that matters. And one heart will – always – touch another’s heart! Story is a cosmic pilgrim. It is forever ‘on the go’ – it is always coming from, sitting with and going – all at the same time. Story though is timeless. Story is never ‘set in stone’; one cannot say “I know their story” – or “this is my story”. Perhaps at one given moment one can be invited to a window into another heart story at that moment – but even as you share the story weaves and heals, let’s go, empties, shifts, learns and unlearns.

As a pilgrim story will invite us to heal and let go as we share from the heart. Other times it will invite us to dance and celebrate. My friends – when in doubt – trust and have the courage to share story; you will never regret it.


What in this blog did you strongly agree with and why?

What in this blog did you struggle with and why?

What did you think of the idea, “When in doubt share story?” Why?

Discussion: Take the ideas from this blog and discuss them with someone significant in your life OR make a comment on the blog site.

2 thoughts on “Breaking open story”

  1. Thanks Damien for sharing the importance of story – I realize I don’t remember other’s stories – I imagine it’s because I’m not really listening. I’ll go forward today consciously aware if someone is starting to share their story, to really pay attention and listen with the heart. Thank you old friend

    1. Thanks Linda – how is New England? Sometimes the other is sharing their story but in a way that we would not normally label as ‘story’ – it is them, directly or indirectly sharing “this is who I am!” Have a great day. Love Damien

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