Thursday, December 31, 2015

Poets, Writers and Storytellers New Year: Hope Is Not for the Weak of Heart

Today's post, by storyteller and storycoach Doug Lipman, is perhaps an unusual point of view--but it is a timely one that can benefit anyone who finds this dark time of year especially difficult. Read on: 

Hope Is Not for the Weak of Heart

By Doug Lipman.
First published as an issue of eTips from the Storytelling Coach.

There's a Jewish literary story about a man named “Bontsha the Silent.” He lives an uncomplaining life, never accusing any for his suffering. After he dies, the angels ask him, “You may have anything in Paradise. What would you like?”

He answers, “Could I have, every morning for breakfast, a hot roll with butter?”

How did the angels react to his wish? You might expect them to be pleased that he remained modest in his expectations.

Instead, the angels were ashamed. That was all he could dream of? That was the extent of his hope?

This story reminds me that hope is not merely a sunny outlook, nor a denial of the hard facts of our lives. Rather, hope is an accomplishment. Like freedom, it must be re-won in every generation. Maybe in every year.

I'm writing this in December, when, in the northern hemisphere, we experience the age-old journey of our part of the earth into shadow - and the rituals developed over eons to celebrate the return to the light. We tend to focus on one part of those celebrations: the reassurance that the light is coming back. But the holidays also demonstrate that the road to the light leads, necessarily, through the longest night.

The Hardest Emotion

I used to tell a story woven around four songs, the “Ballad of Mauthausen” cycle by Mikis Theodorakis. The song lyrics, which were written by a former inmate of the Mauthausen, Austria concentration camp, take us through a series of emotions. The first represents grief; the second, rage and defiance.

The third song is about despair. Curiously, Theodorakis's music for this song is not somber or dreary. Rather, it is cheery and dance-like. Hearing this song, I am reminded that despair is, in a way, easy. It can dance into our lives like an old friend coming to console us. Only later do we notice our misery and powerlessness.

The fourth song in the Mauthausen cycle is a case study in what we have to face, in order to give up our despair or even just our complacency. It is a love song between two people who have only ever seen each other across barbed-wire fences. The singer asks of his distantly glimpsed love, “When the war is over, please do not forget me!”

And he promises that they will transform their bleak landscape into a scene of love. They will frolic in the quarries and dance down the stairs by the machine guns. “We will spread our light wherever death was. We will not leave a single shadow!”

The hardest emotions, it seems, are sometimes the very ones we need to feel, in order to hope.

Storytelling Nourishes Hope

For me, storytelling has a special role in the hopefulness I feel about our war-torn, greed-strewn world. It represents one of the forces that counters inhumanity, broken relationships, and passivity. In particular, storytelling makes me hopeful in these five ways:

1. Storytelling tempts people to listen to one another.

In a world with an ever-increasing work pace, we tend to interact with others only in terms of economic function. (You are the cashier, so just tell me how much I owe.) Storytelling is a form in which we know (mostly) not to interrupt, but to hear someone out.

Storytelling, therefore, counters the tendency toward shorter and shorter interactions in which no one pays attention to anyone else.

And we know just how to reciprocate when we've heard a story. Most of us respond to a story by thinking of stories of our own we wish to tell. Thus, story listening tends to promote more story listening.

2. Storytelling builds empathetic relationships.

Story listening helps us respond to another's words, not merely as statements to be agreed with or countered, but as an invitation to empathy and imagination. Hearing others' stories, we perceive the tellers as the protagonists in their own lives. We see them, not as objects, but as subjects.

3. Storytelling empowers us.

The telling of a story can be an act of mastery. Whether we are telling a life experience or a traditional tale, we decide what to tell and how to tell it.

As a student of literature, I learned to criticize stories and sought to articulate their “true meaning.” As a storyteller, though, I have learned to make stories my own. I seek to clarify which meaning - of the infinite number of meanings a story can have - I most want to convey to the particular listeners I am blessed to have today. I experience the active role of the artist.

4. Storytelling Can Be a Universal Art Form

If art makes us more human, what forms of art are accessible to the largest numbers of people? Zoltan Kodaly, the Hungarian composer and inspiration for an international program of music education, said that we don't have enough money to buy everyone a piano or a violin. But everyone already has a voice, and we can teach them to sing.

Like singing, storytelling requires no equipment. It is as suitable for the poorest peasant as it is for the wealthiest executive. Unlike singing, it is already practiced in some form by every one - so the learning curve is even gentler. And we begin storytelling young yet never outgrow it.

5. Storytelling Can Make Us Bigger

The content of some stories, of course, can actually diminish us. But the vast majority of stories enrich us. In general, the more stories we hear and know, the larger our emotional and social vocabulary.

Storytelling gives us a way to imagine the things we haven't imagined yet:
  •        To broaden our scope.
  •        To tread, as listeners, down the path trod by Bontsha the Silent, and yet to make a different choice in our own lives.
  •        To have experienced, through stories, some of the wishes we haven't yet wished for ourselves.
  •       To remember the dreams we gave up because we felt discouraged.
  •       To ask for something more than two lumps of sugar; to ask for something really hard.
  •       To rediscover both the value of the dark and the value of the light.
  •       To build, one story at a time, our own forms of hope.


About Doug Lipman:

In 1970, Doug Lipman was a discouraged teacher of very resistant adolescents. One day, he told them a story. To his amazement, they did not resist, but became deeply involved. Ever since, Doug has worked to understand exactly how storytelling evokes engagement and cooperation, and to help others learn to use storytelling for personal, interpersonal, and group transformation. 

Contact Doug at
or visit his website at


Susan Anderson said...

This is excellent. Thank you!


Brighid said...

Wonderful, wonderful post, thank you!

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