The following post was originally given as a homily at Luther's daily chapel on Sept. 29, reprinted here with permission.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops - at all
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Twelve years ago, I came to Luther College, and one of my first projects was to work in conjunction with the Nobel Peace Prize Forum of which Wangaari Maathai, a renowned environmental and political activist, was the Nobel Lauriate. In her address, she told a story of a hummingbird faced with horrific forest fire, as were all the other animals in the forest including the elephants, the tigers, ostrich's and hyenas. And while all the other animals stood and watched their forest burning, it was the hummingbird who dipped it's tiny bill into the water and flew off to sprinkle drops of water on the engulfing flames. As she told this story I knew that she was the hummingbird, I knew that I was one too. This story has given me hope more times than I can count, at times when I felt that nothing I could do would ever be enough, as I'm just one person. When I thought I was tired of flying, I replay her story in my mind, and so I continue with my drops of water.
Within each of us, there is a gift…. a story. Our stories have the power to build a new relationship, brighten someone's day, transform a new perspective, organize a following and even perhaps for some, change the world.
Martin Luther's 95 theses themselves were part of a greater story, of injustice and inequality, extortion. What began as an impetus to start a conversation, traveled as a story that began a Reformation. Our stories change as we do, we can tell different portions in context. Everyday our stories come to life. Some of us sing songs to tell our stories, others use iambic pentameter. Some people tell their stories to make people laugh, and others to cry, others share stories to tell how we've come to be where we are.
Stories appeal to the heart and once the heart is won, the mind is opened. As humans, our favorite stories are personal ones, they have a shape, a hero, a dragon, a new perspective. They are filled with suspense and drama. We love the Olympics not because we are competitive and we want to know how many metals the U.S. will win, but because of the personal stories of the athletes and what they have overcome to be there. TED talks, Moth podcasts, regardless of the topic are riveting because they are filled with narrative. They are as much about the speaker as they are about invention, theory and research. Religious texts are stories, the most effective textbooks are filled with stories. History is story.
There are, of course, other modes of communication, dialog and discourse, lecture and debate, but stories are transformative. Like no other communication strategy, stories can build trust as often they make us vulnerable. Stories are sticky to our brain. When we listen to a story, not only are the language processing parts of our brain activated (this is where we make meaning out of words), but also all other parts of the brain that we would use as if we were experiencing the story ourselves, the cerebral cortex, the sensory cortex, our motor cortex. Stories help us navigate our feelings, teach us what to do, or perhaps what not to do. "A few years back, one of my colleagues shared a deeply emotional story of dropping both her phone and her Luther keys in an automatic flushing toilet. Her story resonated with my overzealous fear of losing my Luther keys. Her pain was my pain as her keys were flushed down by the tidal wave of water that she created merely by standing up too soon, and to this day I don't sit on a toilet without first making sure my keys nor my phone are in my pocket."
Often, we connect with stories because we have either a common experiences from which to draw or there is a new perspective we have never thought about before that challenges our own current line of thinking. We gain a new insights. Often we are flooded with questions. When we listen to stories, we connect to the speaker. We build empathy.
Henry David Thoreau said, "Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?"
In the tumultuous time we live, people are entrenched in their beliefs and ideologies. Changing someone's mind is often equated with feeling like you are banging your head against a wall. But, stories have the power to change the human mind and the beliefs that we cling to. While I am now ashamed to admit this, I used to believe that for the most part people who are in prison deserved it. I thought justice was blind, but it turns out I was. My dad is a lawyer, my sister, my good friends growing up, lawyers. I believed in the law. It never stood out to me as one of the most unjust systems of our time. I had a good friend who was in my book club, who was very passionate about fixing the inequalities in our prison system. Her book pick, "The New Jim Crow," was a dense fact-filled text with these very inequalities, driven by extreme racism. I made it halfway through the book before I put it down, not able to internalize any of its content. And while there were startling statistics presented in the book, it did not inspire nor could I quite fit it into the framework of my head. Now fast forward a year later. Bryan Stevenson was coming to speak at Luther as part of the Farwell Distinguished Lecture Series. So my same dear friend suggested we read "Just Mercy," again a book about inequalities in the criminal justice system. But this time, it wasn’t just a book. It was a story, a story within a story. True stories one after another, stories that made me cry, that broke my heart, that traced back to an unjust educational system to which I was already working hard to change. Stories of failure, of hope, of innocence lost of cruel and unusual punishment for those who broke the law, but never deserved the sentences they were served. But at the end of this tragic book, I was left not with anger, or sorrow but with hope. Hope because there were those out there working hard against this injustice, and even more that the stories of those wronged were out there for our consumption, for us to learn from. It is these stories that are powerful enough to change the status quo, and some of them already have. Thanks to Bryan Stevenson and for all those willing to share their stories even in risk. After reading this book, my world view had changed.
Now along with all the environmental organizations I give money too, the Southern Poverty Law Center is on my yearly giving list, but more important than just giving money, I pay attention. I pay attention to candidates who talk about prison reform. I've add this injustice to my list of injustices that I care deeply about. And most importantly than any of this, is that I engage more in our country's much needed dialog about race.
The power of storytelling finds its roots in the human need for connection. The single most driving force behind a person's sense of purpose next to finding food and water is the need for connection, for love. What would it look like if when we sought to engage with others who seemingly thought or believed very differently than ourselves? What if we first reserved judgement of their beliefs, but rather first quested for their personal stories? Beliefs are ridged, stories are fluid.
There is no shortage of things that we disagree on, and when I say we, I mean the global we, the national we, and I would even imagine the you and me we. But let's say that we want to tackle a common problem that we both see. What is it that we need to know in order to move forward? How do we take where we each have been, and become something better together? We will find our common ground within our stories, for it is only with empathy that will we have the space and the heart to move forward, and for this I have hope.
Emily Neal serves Luther as the assistant director for the Center for Sustainable Communities and a staff instructor in Environmental Studies. A passionate science educator, she has more than 20 years of experience teaching people of all ages, on how to integrate concepts of wellness, sustainability and stewardship into their lives. Recognizing that human health is interconnected to the health of our planet, Emily oversees a wide array of healthy living and environmental programs at Luther, including the summer Discovery Camp programs, the Pre-College Environmental Studies Program and the Luther College Immersion Leadership Program. Additionally, Emily oversees outreach programs to regional schools. She works with teachers on integrating topics of sustainability into the curriculum and increasing STEM education. She supervises a team of FoodCorps/AmeriCorps members serving schools to help districts foster healthy environments for students, staff and the communities they serve. She has a master's in science education and an undergraduate degree in exercise science, both from the University of Iowa.