Holding the Center: Story and Community Part 2 – The Importance of Multiple Personal Stories

(About this post) A few months ago, I received my graduate degree in Environmental Education. As part of this program, I wrote and presented a capstone. This presentation was a snapshot of what we had gotten out of our graduate experience, as well as a chance to present our personal vision of education. For me this became a chance to explore my own connection with story, learning, and how we each explore and understand the world through a unique and special lens.

Because my capstone inspired this project, I have decided to edit it and publish it on my blog. I will be posting it in sections, and providing links to the resources I found to be the most valuable as I researched and developed this piece.

You can find part one of this series, called What is Story? here.


Last week we explored the idea of story and some of its possible definitions, and ended by recognizing the importance of stories on a personal level. I mentioned that stories sustain us, and this week I would like to look at what these sustaining life stories are.

What are the stories we tell ourselves? What are the stories we tell about ourselves? As born storytellers, it is almost inevitable that we will see our life and our personal history as a story. Our very memories are stories. They are not fiction, but they are also not a simple list of facts and figures. We interpret, add meaning, omit certain events and exaggerate others. We “become” our stories. Our personal stories and the meaning we make from them provide us with the feelings and thoughts, the perceived possibilities and obstacles that we encounter every day. Through telling and embodying our stories, we define and discover our future.

This process is far from static. Stories can be shaped and reshaped, told and retold. They can even be told in many different ways at once. Mary Catherine Bateson talks about “composing a life story”, about the incredible power of accessing multiple versions of our life story. She writes about “the stories you make up about your life, the stories you tell first to yourself and then to other people, the stories you use as a lens for interpreting experience as it comes along” adding that “you can play with, compose, multiple versions of a life”.

How does this work exactly? I will be using my own story to explore this. I recognize that sharing these details in a public forum can be sensitive, and so I am not going to include personal details of family or friends. However, learning to tell my own story is another aspect of this project and my capstone, so I will be sharing my own experiences, both traumatic and joyful.

I grew up on a small island, in a wonderful small town community, with a loving family made up of my parents and my two younger sisters. I was an imaginative child, and even at 5 or 6 years old, I was outlining daily class schedules for my dolls, creating worksheets for them, and then filling them out for and then grading them (I made sure to make mistakes too!). As I grew up, I was exposed to many different forms of alternative education, especially through my dad, who was a teacher himself. These experiences helped me flower as a student, a person, and gave me an early understanding of what good education can look like.

When I was 21, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Over the next two years, I managed to graduate from college, and as a family, we pulled together, took trips to tropical countries and spent time together crying and laughing. Over the course of his illness, as countless students wrote to him thanking him for his inspiration and encouragement, I became acutely aware of the impact a good teacher can have. Two years after he was diagnosed, he passed away. It was a hard time for my family, but we continued to support each-other as we took a deep breath and began to re-enter the world.

A few months after my father passed away, I chaperoned a high school trip to Nicaragua that he had started about 10 years earlier. While I was there, I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life educating young people and getting them to have new and transformative experiences just like my father had done.

I spent two years working in the school I had attended as a kid, the school my father had taught at, and two years later, while chaperoning the same trip to Nicaragua once more, I was accepted to a graduate program through Western Washington University in Environmental Education. The two years of that program gave me the chance to learn about the experiential education I am passionate about, and a few months on, I am currently exploring opportunities that will give me the chance to be the educator I have always wanted to be.

The story told above emphasizes the links between events, and sees the present as a natural result of all the experiences I have had before. The through line is clear and strong. This is what Bateson calls a “continuous story”. These stories appeal to us, they make us feel like everything we have done has a purpose or a meaning. These stories align the most closely with classic story model I discussed in part 1 last week. Fundamentally, continuous stories often make us feel good.

However, when we think about our life in terms of the classic story structure, there is the danger of seeing all the obstacles and all the challenges as in the past. If where we are today is the happy ending, thinking about what comes next can be frightening. We have to deal with the idea that there may be unforeseen events that don’t fit into our preferred story-line, and we have the added pressure of fitting every new thing that happens into a preexisting structure.

So what if I told you that growing up, what I really to be was an actress? That for most of my childhood, I was adamant that I never wanted to teach? That in high school and college, I wanted to go into medicine, to be a paramedic and then a nurse? That after I moved home to help take care of my father, I was working at the medical clinic in preparation for applying to nursing school?

That on that trip to Nicaragua I talked about above, I was completely surprised by the realization that being there made me happier then what I was doing at the clinic, and that this realization was what ultimately led me to education?

What if I even told you that I have a long history of struggling with my siblings and my parents? That for much of my father’s illness my youngest sister and I really couldn’t connect, despite the fact that we loved each other? That it wasn’t until years after my dad’s death that we were able to have an honest conversation about that time?

By emphasizing the uncomfortable or unexpected events that led me to where I am today, I am telling a story that emphasizes the disconnect and randomness of many events in my life, which Bateson calls a “discontinuous story.”

One example of how this kind of story has helped me is that in elementary and high school, I acted in a lot of plays, but after leaving for college, while I helped some with a local theater, I never considered it to be something I would use professionally. When I started a work-study position through my graduate degree at a local independent school, I was hoping to teach some of the environmental subjects I had been learning about. However, the only real teaching space available was a chance to teach the theater class, which I was able to do.

While the example I have given may seem relatively painless, these stories are often not easy ones to recognize and tell, even to ourselves. The version of my father’s illness I told is definitely more painful and it is not a comfortable one, but it also allows me to recognize parts of myself I don’t normally access in my current life, it assures me that I can take opportunities that may seem random today with the confidence that they will eventually lead me somewhere even if I can’t see it now. While it isn’t a narrative I would choose to tell to a stranger, or even to myself every day, it is a helpful one to keep in mind.

Finally what if I told you about a moment, about a day? On this day, we were at Paradise Lodge in Mount Rainier State Park celebrating my mom’s 60th birthday. I was still in my undergraduate years, unsure about what I wanted to do or where I was headed. It had been a hard summer, and I had not been getting along well with my parents or my sisters. Looking back, I can see that I was pretty unhappy, although given everything to come, I am envious of my innocence, of the simplicity of my problems.

On that day, as my mom and I walked behind my dad, looking at the stunning wildflowers in the shadow of the mountain, we noticed a slight shuffle in his walk, a slight droop in his face. These slight symptoms were about to change our lives.

The very next day, a CT scan and then an MRI showed that he had developed a brain tumor, and over the following two years, that tumor gradually took his life. The process of losing him ultimately brought our family together in a way we had never come together before, and while I didn’t realize it at first, reading the words of his former students instilled something in me that would eventually lead me to become an educator myself.

By telling my story this way, I am highlighting one moment, one event that changed everything. This story is considered to be a “conversion story”. Conversion here does not mean literal, religious conversion, but conversion in the sense that in the story, my perspective is forever changed by one event. This story puts a pivotal event front and center, and depending on the event I choose, the story is completely different. For me at least, it becomes a shortcut – a way to describe a long and painful personal transformation without describing every painful detail.

In the end, I don’t know what version I prefer. They all provide me with different emotions, different motivations, and different ways of seeing myself and my family. But it is possible that the choice itself is unimportant, even dangerous. As humans, with our complex storytelling minds, we have the power and the opportunity to recognize and hold all of these narratives at once. By choosing to tell ourselves or others a certain version of the story at a certain point in time, we are impacting the choices we make. We are changing the way we live through changing the stories we choose to embody.

In a moment when I need comfort, I may choose to remember the first version of this story. Right now, as I am moving into the unknown, it may be helpful for me to remember the discontinuous version of the story, to relieve the pressure to find the job that fits into the next “slot” in the story of my life. When I am teaching, I may choose the way I present a story to reflect the concerns and needs of my students in that moment.

I feel it is vital that we begin to examine our own personal stories, look deeply at the messages and beliefs that we have internalized, that we communicate through our words and our actions. How can we become conscious of these, become conscientious about what stories we choose to tell, who we want to be? This is crucial. As stories are so fundamental to human nature, so subconscious, we are constantly absorbing and understanding the world through the stories we hear or the stories we tell. Without the power to identify what those stories are and how they are being told, we are unable to critically examine ourselves and our communities, we are unable to choose who we become.

According to Jonathan Gottschall, an author and professor who studies literature and evolution “Story – sacred and profane – is perhaps the main cohering force in human life”. As I began to frame and identify my own story, I quickly realized that it isn’t mine alone, that it wasn’t solely mine to tell, or mine to know. I am, like all humans, not isolated, and this story is the story of my family, and the story of my community. In fact, no human being has a completely independent story. As humans, we cannot tell a story without each-other, we cannot exist without each-other. Last week, I invited you to think of a story that you remember vividly. Thinking about that story now, I ask you to recognize the many other stories are there. Who else could tell that story? How would it look similar? How would it look different?

Stories are an intensely interactive experience. Whether we are telling stories to each other, sharing books with stories that thousands or millions of people have read, flocking to movie theaters to watch stories play out in front of us in an audience, stories are something we experience together. Even as we tell ourselves stories and listen to the voices inside our heads, these stories are impacted by the people we share our lives with, by the culture we grow up in, by the place, the role we play, and by so many other factors. Yes, our individual identities and belief systems are stories. But they are stories that are told in dialogue with others.

Next week, I will explore how these community stories intersect with our personal ones, and what that can look like, both positively and negatively.

Great Resources for Further Exploration:

Part 1:

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Story Proof: the Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall Haven

Part 2:

The material for this piece came from an essay by Mary Catherine Bateson called “Composing a Life Story” published in: The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, edited by Paul Loeb. However, she also wrote a book, also called Composing a Life Story, and has also been featured on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet.


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