Storytelling and Values: Below the Radar?

Some time ago, I worked with three people who share similar frustrations. As it happens, they are each from a different walk of life, but each cares about these two things:

  1. The improvement of society; and
  2. The power of storytelling.

Jaimi the Performer

Consider Jaimi (I am not using real names). She’s a professional storyteller, devoted to a life in the arts and to the healing changes she sees storytelling bringing to audiences and students alike. Yet the budgets of arts organizations seem the first to be cut and the last to be restored.

As a result, like so many of us, she’s always trying to do more with less. She’s so focused on trying to do her good work, which she is certain could help heal society, that she has too little time and attention to spare for activism. She feels she has to choose between doing her art, on the one hand, and trying to fix the rat-race system, on the other. Frustratingly, she is aware that the same broken system is both 1) fueling both the extraordinary need for her art and 2) draining away the money and energy she needs, if she’s to continue providing it.

Hugo the Consultant

Or what about Hugo? He’s an organizational consultant with a deep love for storytelling and its humanizing effects on corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit. His purpose is to help organizations establish a climate of trust and acceptance where every employee and volunteer can contribute fully.

In his personal life, Hugo is active in a variety of social-change organizations. But, to avoid sabotaging his own ability to make a living, he down-peddles the social-reform aspect of his personal agenda when he’s working with his clients. So he feels frustrated: he is clear on his goals; he know ways to help achieve those goals; but too little of his time is spent actually applying his knowledge to advance those goals.

Janelle, Parent and Teacher

Then there’s Janelle. She is a parent, a teacher, and an amateur storyteller. She tries to make the world better in all three of her roles, by helping people focus on their common goals (including a healthy environment for their families) rather than their differences, and by trying to treat everyone—even those she might see as opponents—as fully human and worthy of respect.

She loves to tell stories, to anyone who will listen, about the need for cooperation and mutual respect. But people have become resistant to many of her stories, which some criticize as moralizing, at worst, and guilt-inducing, at best. So it’s become rare that she can tell the very stories that she feels the world most needs to hear.

The Crisis

Each of the three is facing a similar crisis. The world seems so broken. Their efforts seem so weak or unfocused. Their time is eaten ever more greedily by pursuits that ignore the needs they see in society. Their frustrations are building up, sometimes causing them to be too shrill at times, or else too quiet when they wish they felt brave enough to speak up.

They are energetic and active by nature, but they find themselves more often lost in ennui, less and less able to keep their focus on what they think is most important. Most painfully of all, all three are naturally hopeful people, but they sense a rising tide of despair.

Each of them, in their own ways, suspects that, if they could only find a way to nudge the world a bit more systematically toward the kind of societies they each envision, they’d be able to find the strength to stay focused, keep working, and keep living the zestful lives they each believe to be natural to our species.

But they don’t see a way. So they become less effective. They spend more time distracting themselves from their impending sense of hopelessness.

Below the Radar?

Is there a way to promote forward-leaning values while flying below the radar? Is it possible to apply ourselves constantly to the transformation of society without drawing constant flak?

I am certain there are many such ways. I’m excited about one approach, though, because I have recently noticed that the very skills I’ve perfected in teaching storytelling can actually promote a series of values that can help us move society in the direction of being more humane, more inclusive, and more just.

Over the last four years, I have been looking at storytelling, how it teach it, and what values storytelling encourages—just through its processes, apart from the content of individual stories.

I have coached Jaimi, Hugo and Janelle, helping them find conscious ways to encourage these values, without needing to preach about them or even call attention to their potential to transform society. I have taught brief workshops, at my office and at conferences, and one online course.

Warning: This Does Not Replace Activism

I believe in the power of this quiet breeze of arts, slowly pushing the tree of culture to grow in a particular direction. But this work, as powerful as it can be, will not replace direct action. 

Nonetheless, most of us can’t do direct action all the time. But we can learn to align our efforts so they nudge the world in the right direction, every day.