June 20, 2017
How is it that Americans speak the same language and yet have so little understanding of one another at times? How can our words be the same, and yet our meaning become so lost when talking to one another across cultures, statuses or ethnicities? Could it be that the words don’t mean much without the stories they can tell?
As it has done so many times over the years, Star Trek explored that possibility in an episode about an alien race who spoke an easily recognizable language, but communicated with it through metaphor, relying entirely on allusions to shared stories and allegories common to their people. The aliens trap Picard and their own captain together on a world inhabited by a fearsome beast, where the alien captain desperately repeats references to a story he thinks Picard should know, trying to communicate. Slowly, Picard realizes that the point of the story is the same as that of the human epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu: that sharing danger creates deep friendships. Unable to communicate in time and form a mutual defense, the alien captain is killed by the beast, and war with his people is imminent through the misunderstanding. But Picard learns enough of their history and cultural stories to communicate that he and the alien leader had become friends, and the two peoples then bond through their shared grief and honoring the sacrifice that had been made for peace between them.
Though we all appreciate the enjoyment we receive from watching such a show, or from reading a compelling book, the essential nature of story as a way of knowing and communicating meaning between us has largely become lost. The reasons for this are many and probably debatable, but it’s hard not to see that we all puzzle over elements of human nature and of understanding others for which we historically used to rely on parables, myths, allegorical tales - stories - for understanding. No wonder we’ve become so frustrated in our communications. We are storytellers and story-listeners by nature, and have devolved socially without them, forgetting that we have so much more than words to share.
This was brought home powerfully to us as we spoke with Brian, a storyteller on the Oneida Tribe reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. While we set up for the interview, we asked Brian about his life and how he became a Native storyteller (while also running a tax preparation business.) Gracious and soft-spoken, he replied, “I do this because it’s the way we stay human. In our culture, it has always been that when someone has a question, they ask an elder. But the elder does not give them answers to their questions. They tell them a story that helps them see why others have asked the same question or how they have dealt with the same circumstances. And that story may mean different things to different people, which means the answers they find may be different too. But understanding comes from finding meaning, not from being told what something means.”
Brian then related how the grandmother who raised and taught him loved to watch people and would tell him what she saw. After watching him speak to a group of visiting tourists, she pointed out that all the men walked just behind their women with one hand always straying to their back wallet pockets. She also told how, after Brian had finished speaking to the group, that, “You could tell these white people anything and they would believe you!” Grandmother’s first observation likely has many interpretations, of course, but her second made me realize that Toni and I had begun believing anything in our struggles to make Lovin America successful; we’d accepted the authority of words about marketing language, social media, analytics, etc. while our joy and purpose has always been found in the stories of American lives and loves. Success will follow being true to who we are, telling those stories, and not from talking about them. There is a big difference there. Thank you, Brian’s grandmother for not giving us an answer, but for instead leading us to it through your story.
With renewed ears, I left a little gym in Saginaw, Michigan this morning. An old man walked by as I mounted the bike and said, “Nice ride.” I got off the bike and shook his hand, saying, “Thanks. You ride?” I discovered that Patrick was a wooden flat-track motorcycle racer in his younger days, had ridden Alaska and many of the same backroads we have as well. (Us because we hate Interstate highways, him because they hadn’t been around at the time.) Crossing Montana on an old knucklehead Harley in his twenties, he’d lost a wheel bearing, resulting in a meeting with a small town local with tools and a shed. He offered Patrick a bed and some beers while he wrenched his bike, only asking in return, “Leave me a can will ya?” Patrick instead left a freezer full of steaks and a case of beer, along with a few new oil spots on the shed floor and a lifelong friendship. His wife would never ride, though, because a friend talked her into a jaunt on his trike and rode a wheelie with her on board all the way down their street. “Scared the motorcycle right outta her.” Patrick was sideswiped once in a hit a run, but even after finding out who dunnit, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. “I just took my scratches and rode on - kinda like life.” Patrick’s story was a reminder that under gray hair and behind the glasses and the fading eyes of age beats the heart of youth and memory and experience worth sharing. I should never be in such a hurry that I miss the chance to hear it.
We began our work on Lovin America because of the power of story between people - in our case love stories - and the insight and hope we believed those tales could bring. As Joseph Campbell said, “Every story you hear is your own story,” and the stories of America for which we search are likewise the narratives of us all. Through them, we each find ourselves, our courage and our questions, our history, our ways to find meaning, and our shared bonds as human beings. That’s why Lovin America doesn’t offer advice about love and marriage, or the “10 Easy Steps to Happiness” and so on that are so popular today. No one can tell you the bullet points for how to live a life or how to love. There are, however, stories that speak of overcoming challenges, learning to forgive, finding faith, bringing together disparate families, dealing with grief and addiction, returning from war, finding identity, and every imaginable variation of these and more. Best of all, America is writing new ones every day in the lives and loves of her amazing people.
This is a great big campfire around which we can all gather. And we’re so ready to listen.