Storytelling an age-old tradition with modern implications

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Don't you just love a good story? Whether it's hearing a friend or family member sharing something meaningful or getting deeper perspective on the news, storytelling has such impact. In today's culture, however, there seems to be little time to sit down, relax and absorb a detailed account.

 Summer is a great time to rediscover the joy of all this. It's the season when people ask, "What are you reading at the beach?" I know that more time is often spent with cheap tabloid fiction than facts, ala biography, history and theological themes, but any story can be meaningful.

Many people avoid reading anything at all, likely a leftover from school years where reading was perceived to be an "assignment" instead of fun. Too bad.

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around hot summers in the Midwest, sitting on the front porch with a pile of books. Usually non-fiction, but always an assortment of things most young kids didn't read. I always enjoyed whatever was a bit more challenging than what I read last. It was some of the best "unofficial summer school" ever. Through the process, I developed a life-long love of information and yes, stories.

 Still, I have needed some new reminders of the value of storytelling.

At breakfast with a friend of mine a few months ago, I was sharing some accounts of recent travels and behind the scenes reports of notables I have interviewed on the radio. My friend stopped me in mid-course and asked, "You do that, right? On the air? Do you tell stories? You should."

He brought me a fresh appreciation for the fact that people love stories, and more importantly they pay closer attention to what the story is all about when it's made more relatable.

Recent non-stop accounts of Hollywood stars in trouble grab the attention of the public not only because of the personalities involved, but also due to the unfolding real-life drama. Relationships, trouble with the law, substance abuse … it makes an impact because it hits people where they live. It's real world-meets-la-la land.

Stories fascinate us. They're compelling, connecting and empowering. Even a bad news account can hold lessons for the one who hears or reads it.

Want to reach someone where it counts? Share a story.

One of my earliest recollections of a story that made all the difference in my life happened at summer camp. I was 9 years old and spending the week at a place once known as "Camp Willabay,, in Williams Bay, Wisc.

Every night, our group would spend time around the campfire, sharing and singing and hearing stories. That's where I first fully grasped the story of Jesus … where I became a Christian. And it wasn't through heavy-duty preaching or thundering rhetoric. The message came through a camp counselor who told us stories of his own life choices, and reflected God's love and power throughout.


Living moments
Stories bring moments to life, often providing life-changing results.

My friend John Barletta was Ronald Reagan's longtime Secret Service agent. In the early 1990s, he was the man who had to tell the president his Alzheimer's disease was intensifying ... he would have to quit riding his horses. It was something The Gipper had been doing for over 55 years.

Sad, yes. But even more moving when you read John's personal account in his book, "Riding With Reagan." After first asking Mrs. Reagan to inform her husband, it was clear the protective agent of 17 years would have to convey the message. Reluctantly he walked down to the ranch house, knocked and went inside, finding President Reagan sitting by the fireplace, reading. Barletta writes:

"He was an avid reader. He'd go to sleep with a book on his chest just about every night. 'Mr. President' I said, 'we had a lot of trouble out there this morning, didn't we?'

"'Yeah, I did.'" Even in the bad times, he was still polite. I wanted to make it seem like I had been the problem—but that was just not the case. I went on, 'It's just at the point where this riding isn't working out. Sir, I don't think you should ride anymore.' I was practically in tears.

'He got up and put his hands on my shoulders and said 'It's okay, John. I know.' That was it. We never rode again. We never talked about it. He could see how upset I was and he was trying to make ME feel okay.'"


Gripping details
Stories can grip your heart. And they can reveal other stories than might be just beneath the surface.

A few years ago I was invited to interview Mikhail Gorbachev. It wasn't easy, doing so in person and on location backstage at an event in Palm Desert. I recorded the radio segment with the former Soviet leader while the translator did his job simultaneously. There was only a half hour to get in all my questions, including one that I was afraid I wouldn't have the guts to ask: "Mr. Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan often told insiders that you were probably a 'secret Christian.' Are you?"

He understood the question before it was translated and was taken aback. I expected him to express irritation, but instead he smiled and said, "I was growing up in a family where people worshipped and I saw that. I was christened myself, as a little boy." He told of how his grandmother prayed for him. Clearly, faith had meaning. He then went on to explain how his generation was brought up under the Soviet (aka "atheist") system. Just part of the job requirement, I guess. I asked, "So, what about today?"

"I believe above all I am a person who has tremendous respect for the people who believe and worship. I believe it's a process. I cannot say I am a 'religious believer.'"


Sharing process
A "process." Interesting choice of words, as in "this isn't settled for me yet." I asked, "So does God exist?"

"Who knows? That's why it's faith."

I had one more question:" Then you're leaving your options open?"

"Da."

Yes, stories make life—and the news—more interesting. They reveal the humanity behind celebrity. And they can be transforming. That's why Jesus used parables to get our attention.

Whether we know it or not, our own everyday lives and our reaction to each moment are stories for others to "read." And we write new chapters every day.


Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. He can be heard daily in San Diego on KCBQ 1170AM from 7 to 9 a.m., and on KPRZ 1210AM from 2 to 4 p.m. E-mail: mark@marklarson.com.


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Published, August 2010