Sunday 29 June 2014

Focusing on stories

When I was a child I loved stories. I was blessed to have an Aunty Carol at home, a kind of Mary Poppins figure who came into my life before I was conscious, and died of cancer when I was twelve. She told me stories, often the same ones again and again because I begged her to do so. They were the best kind: imagined live, well-known, with some new twists every now and then, recurring characters, but enough of them to aborb new ones into the circle, and always the expectation of excitement as well as tension.

I woke up one morning when I was five and found I could read. I was drawn to books almost ferociously: when I was ten, during a cold winter's day at Gordon's Bay I read "Wuthering Heights" and while hardly grasping the deeper layers of narrative, I was instinctively drawn to the atmospheric intensity, and the themes that ran with them.

When I turned thirteen my own story hit me like an express train, right in the solar plexus, and I have been trying to find ways to tell it to myself ever since.
So intrigued was I by the powerful effects of narrative, that when I was about fifteen I made an important career decision. I figured that if I identified with one particular hat for work purposes, that was all I would wear, and that would be severely restricting. So I decided that I would teach literature, and thus be available to experience, vicariously, all the roles available in all the stories possible.

Thus I became a teacher, and learnt quite quickly that the teaching profession itself is a difficult story. You bumped your head against political purpose rather than the joy of open minds, you struggled with bullying hierarchies, mindless admin., distracted students, in short, all the ironies of living that come disguised as education.

I worked hard, learned as much as I could, and made it to university level as professor of English. After some years, the story of my own life interrupted me, and took me on to where I am now.

If you are to coach the mind, your own or any other, narrative is probably the most powerful tool.
I thnk that we always instinctively need to find a vehicle for our words, sentences and paragraphs, and the context that we choose, mostly unconsciously, is the story that pops out, cued by the dramas of and in our lives.

We do not focus consciously on the dramas in and of our lives: they happen on a daily and weekly basis, and the big ones like love and death come unheralded.

We pass dangerous places in our lives, and when these happen to us, we need a myth, a living story to word us past these places.

One of the most helpful books I have read, in this connection, is Rollo May's "The Cry For Myth".
At the core, we require a living story that makes sense of living for us.

Fortunately, a way of objectifying stories, even living stories, has been invented: the book.

A book can be a dangerous thing because it both objectifies and formalises a story, or any other set of ideas, and establishes a weird link between objectivity and subjectivity, just as our bodies do.

We believe our existence because we experience our bodies. We believe books in respect of the claims they make, from recipes to salvation.

However, no story has a neat beginning and a definite ending. From fantasy to history to sensationalism to cosmology, you can always find contextual links and personal fascination.

Stories are not merely personal. They also reflect the ultimacy of human meaning. Applied to business, they can work to great effect. Applied to history, they establish knoiwledge. Aspiring to faith, they create genuine steps.

They begin at beginnings that are not new.

They end at places that enter the greatest story of stories.

It has been my quest to find that story, and to know it when I find it, and that quest has brought me to a place where there are two mats before the entrance. The instruction is not to wipe my shoes but to take them off and read, as if for the first time in my life: humility and love.

The intensity that struck me as a teenager is worded by what these two morphemes convey. Put together, a third quickly arrives: compassion.

If we follow the intent and energy of the stories that want to go somewhere, and aren't just for entertainment, we will progress to the felt meanings of these words.

These are intense matters of the heart, and if you allow it, your feet may stay on the mats, as a welcome, rather than an entrance.

The entrance is better than a thousand welcomes, if you know your host as well as your best friend, your beloved, your Lord. The focus at this point goes through the eye of the needle, but is worth it.

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