Telling Tales

I have never doubted the power of story. As a hospital chaplain it was my privilege to hear countless tales of people’s lives, their hopes and fears. At times I felt I was curating these stories – being handed them like treasured items held close to the heart. So fragile, that mishandling them might cause these heirlooms to break. There was something very sacred about this curating. Being invited in whispered tones to hold this precious fragment; a meeting, a marriage, an illness – stray episodes of significance that only made sense lodged in someone’s long-crafted discourse.

Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill.

Doris Lessing, ‘On not winning the Nobel Prize’, 2007

These key stories were often decades old, and rooted in someone’s sense of identity. The elderly woman, many years after her husband’s death, squeezing my hand as she told me once again about that fateful day when her life changed forever. The compassion of the nurse; the matter of fact tone of the doctor; a relationship which even death could not divide.

We are made up from stories. They are not just the furniture of existence but the walls and roofs of our reality. Sociologists know the power of the tales we develop during illness. As I found in my work on the wards of the NHS, new experiences need to be accommodated in the stories held dear. The person who feels ‘lucky’ that they could sign up for a particular clinical trial. Equally, the person whose stories appear to lie in tatters: a pregnancy ended and a life imagined suddenly gone.

During the Covid-19 crisis all kinds of stories are being created. For many this will be a watershed event, a moment which divides the before and the after, the old world and the new. It goes without saying that we may not like the ‘new’. It could be a time of previously unknown austerity for the world, an era when the taken-for-granted certainties of the West become persistent doubts. I recall living in Argentina in the late 1980s and learning of the frequent experience of people going unpaid for several months. Teachers, breaking up for summer holidays at Christmas, and unsure when the next pay cheque would arrive. Even when it did, it was eroded by inflation – but perhaps that was all part of the plan. The micro-securities of the West are aberrations in historical and global terms. This may be something, unwanted, which we shall have little choice but to learn.

Doris Lessing was right about the power of stories. They can transform the disaster of Dunkirk into a different kind of triumph, and open windows to see the world in new ways. The stories being shared on social media by the Black Lives Matter campaign are digging at the hidden foundations of the privilege on which power has rested for so long. The urgency of these renewed narratives enable people to see that inequality is not the fault of the poor and the oppressed. It is wired into societies and institutions which have chosen to look the other way and long avoided the tough questions about what we choose to celebrate; replicate and elevate.

Our daughter is about to graduate – or would be doing if the ceremony could happen. It reminded me of my graduation from the University of Hull in 1986. Antonia Fraser gave the speech and recalled a time she had been at a State function in Turkey. In a heated exchange about human rights she swore extensively to emphasise her point. The host was shocked at the language – but didn’t appear to be disturbed about the realities of injustice. She cautioned us to focus on the things that matter rather than the distractions of civility. This is one story that has become part of my story.

The last word – a hopeful word – needs to go to Doris Lessing and the conclusion of her tour de force Nobel acceptance speech:

It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Thank God, I have no doubt that they will.

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