The Strategic Power of Story

A recent publication from NPR details the memoriam of Michael Sharp, both a man and a name not likely known to many. This past Monday, his body was found in a shallow grave along with that of his interpreter, Zaida Catalan, in the Dominican Republic of Congo after having left two weeks ago to travel into the jungle.

Sharp knowingly went into the rebel-run jungle, however, and he went armed with only one item: stories. His objective? To work for peace convincing as many rebels as possible to give up their violence and return to their families, their homes.

Upon first reading, I was struck by the naïveté of Sharp. How can one go into the jungles of the Congo (or anywhere, for that matter) to approach belligerent, armed rebels with only words? No spare machete or rifle, just in case?

It is only after sitting with Sharp’s ideas for a few days that I’ve come to understand the gravity of his discovery, and that if anything is going to change the world, rebel or otherwise, it is going to be stories.

From the moment we arise in the morning to the moment we lie down in the evening, we internally narrate the story of our lives. We tell ourselves the reasons behind our choices, justify doing this or that, to calm ourselves from external pressures barraging our inner calm.

In rare circumstances, some allow the version of their reality to drastically alter the choices they make. What I mean to say is that some take their interpretation of events (and only their interpretation) and use it to justify actions that would otherwise be unethical.

Namely, rebel Congolese use their version of the past, one in which they ruled Rwanda with impunity, to dictate their actions toward others in an effort to recreate their fantastical nostalgia.

More abstractly, all of us use our version of the past to influence with whom we are friends, whom we can or will not forgive, and the actions we pursue toward future goals.

The nature of one’s story is inherently persuasive, as it is what guides one’s mental state throughout the day, week, and year.

This past weekend, I was struck by a more common connection: perspective. My son became upset when he didn’t get his way (shock! awe!), and after considerable pouting he said “I am just disappointed [that I didn’t get what I wanted].”

“The way I see it,” I said, “is that you have two choices. You can either look at moments in life as opportunities or disappointments. Opportunities are moments we seek the positive, even in spite of being upset; disappointments are moments we dwell on the negative. You can always pick one or the other, but the world looks a lot nicer from the opportunity side.”

He’s eleven, so he sighed and rolled his eyes. (We’re working on it.)

And yet I realize that this is where it starts. This moment—eleven, twenty-three, forty-nine—is when we begin to tell the story. We begin to set out the pattern of our lives from the story we tell ourselves.

Sharp was on the drastic end of the spectrum, taking stories into one of the most conflicted areas of the world to attempt to generate peace. As I said, at first I thought this was a bit naive, if not somewhat crazy. But from the beginning of time we’ve all had story; it’s what keeps us going. All faiths are based in story—all morals, all ethics, all goals. If there is one way to reach the basic humanity of any group, it is through this portal. Sharp, therefore, was a genius. He understood this truth better than anyone.

In Sharp’s memory, it would be wise to reflect on our own stories. Are we telling ourselves an inaccurate history? Do we side-skirt reality because our story is first-person perspective when we should attempt third-person omniscient? Should we move toward the conflicts in our own lives by approaching the story motivating the conflict?

What I take from this memory, this loss, is that we must remember we all have a story, and it would be naive to act as if others’ stories aren’t just as important to their worldview as our own. Perhaps the right conversation to start is how our stories overlap and where we can begin to work toward peace, be that in the Congo or over the dinner table.

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