Journalist Larry Smith first became interested in stories when he was walking on the boardwalk with his grandfather. His grandfather knew everyone and, as they walked, he kept stopping to talk with person after person. It struck Smith that he didn’t know much about his grandfather’s story. So he asked his grandfather to tell him about his life. His grandfather, though, said there really wasn’t much to tell. Smith managed to get his grandfather to start talking and Smith says he didn’t stop for a few hours. It turned out his grandfather had plenty to tell.
Everyone has a story to tell. Telling stories isn’t reserved for the professional storytellers, authors, filmmakers and memoirists. They do tend to garner the most attention and book sales. But everyone’s journey is worth telling and worth hearing. All of us are storytellers in our own way. As writer and novelist Margaret Atwood says,
Storytelling is part of being human — you can’t separate it from being a human being. Whether you call it “professional storytelling” or not, everybody is telling a Story of My Life to themselves all the time.
After hearing his grandfather’s stories, Smith became more and more interested in the idea of ordinary people telling their stories. He started gathering people’s stories by offering writing prompts. Then one day, he posed a simple question. He invited people to respond to the question: What is your six-word story?
That question captured people’s imaginations in a bold way. Overnight 10,000 people had shared their stories. And the stories kept coming. Each story consisted of just six words. I’ve already shared some examples. Here are two more that Smith gathered.
Smith gathered six-word stories from children too. Here are a few of theirs.
The idea of the six-word story is said to have started with novelist Ernest Hemingway. As legend tells it, Hemingway was challenged in a bar bet. He was challenged to write a whole novel in just six words. As that story goes, he wrote this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A six-word story has an incredible ability to distill a whole life or to capture a chapter of it. The limitation to a few words seems to inspire individuals to get to the essence of their story. But inviting others to share their journeys—whether in six, sixty, or 600 words—is the key. Why is such sharing so powerful? Why does it capture people’s imaginations? For one thing, as Margaret Atwood said, we are all always telling stories to ourselves about our own lives. For another, sharing experiences helps us know ourselves and know that our journey counts. Writer Ursula K. Le Guin observes that:
Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want, too. If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume that our experience is insignificant.
Giving expression to our lives helps us know ourselves and our dreams. The opportunity to share our stories unlocks the untold threads of our experience. It can be agony to be unable to share who we are from deep within us. Maya Angelou says, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." Giving voice to what happens gives people personal agency. Storytelling empowers and emboldens. It allows a person to go on despite even the most tragic of events in their personal histories. Writer Jeanette Winterson calls storytelling a strategy for survival. According to Winterson, crafting the narrative is
how we allow ourselves agency in the world, instead of being completely overwhelmed by the things that happen to us. We are, by the writing of that story, by the way that we tell what’s happened to us, giving it back to ourselves instead of being powerless within it.
Story also affords hope and confidence that one’s experiences have significance. The various chapters of life begin to take shape. Rather than being a series of random, disconnected, and meaningless events, these chapters get linked and take on a sense of meaning and purpose. As poet Jane Hirshfield explains, story
shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self. . . . Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.
Our religious community understands the meaning-making, life-affirming, connective power of story. Our community makes space for each of us to share who we are. We don’t always do that perfectly, but it is one of our aspirations. In fact, Unitarian Universalism sees the sharing of and respect for the diverse expressions of our experiences as central to our spirituality.
We also honor that a person’s journey is ever evolving. Our UU faith insists that life itself is open. Our lives are open. The trajectory of existence is open. Our collective religious stories and also our personal stories can be written and rewritten. New choices can be made. It is possible to awaken again and again to new truths and new understandings of ourselves and the world around us. In fact, our religion asks us to support and encourage ourselves and each other to just such growth.
Unitarian Universalism rejects the idea that life—our individual or collective existence—is destined to move in a particular pre-ordained direction. Life is in the living of it. The story unfolds. Our personal stories unfold based on the choices and commitments we make and also based on our ability to write and rewrite the narrative.
This doesn’t mean that we have control over everything. But it does mean that each of us has some freedom regarding our beliefs and actions. It means that we are the authors of our own lives. Or at the very least we have the ability to choose how to tell our own stories and to make meaning of our own experiences. That ability to shape and tell our stories is healing, nurturing, inspiring, and transformative. And it is a lifelong process.
As a spiritual community, we share and also listen to each other’s stories. We try to learn about ourselves and each other in the telling and the listening, to make sense of our lives, and to connect with others. To have others hear our story and treat it with tenderness and genuine interest is to feel that our experience matters, that our lives have value, that we are contributing through our living in small, subtle, and sometimes grand ways.
Unitarian Universalism calls us to journey together in this way, side by side. Our intention is to learn to see ourselves and each other for who we are and to witness ourselves and each other into being. This journeying together includes encouraging and supporting one another, holding each other accountable, learning together, stretching ourselves, and making discoveries.
Stories get shared as we are gathering for worship and during coffee hour conversations. It happens at educational programs, in committee meetings, in justice efforts, and in new member classes. Every time I participate in a church program or activity, stories get shared. Some of those stories are funny and poignant. Some are heartbreaking. Some of those stories are stories of birth and death, some of joy and sorrow, some of hope and struggle, some belief and doubt. Some are difficult to hear. People take risks—some large, some small—and allow themselves to be vulnerable by opening up about their ideas, beliefs, and experiences.
Story builds connections among us. It builds friendships, kinship, and community. One of things I notice is that when people begin to share common threads begin to emerge in our narratives. A sense of unity can grow in these moments. But if we listen more deeply to our own stories and each other’s stories we also hear the nuances and the unique paths of our personal journeys. We are not all alike.
Contradictory stories, experiences, and perspectives may arise. What an opportunity that presents to us. The invitation in those moments is to learn from each other and to expand our hearts with compassion. These are sacred moments that challenge us to respect and appreciate our differences—to welcome our differing narratives.
To honor our common threads makes us feel connected. But to honor how unique we each are is to live our faith in a bold and welcoming way. As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm an openness to different and new perspectives and our growing edge is to live into that as a reality. To love someone in all their complexity and uniqueness—of belief, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability or age, is one of the most beautiful and healing gifts imaginable.
Encouragement to change and growth is another powerful gift of our faith. The hope is that our encounters with another, the sharing and listening to each other’s stories, will foster our spiritual growth and development. That we will be willing to risk changing—changing our minds, our hearts, our language, our beliefs. Who we are at 15 or 25 may not be who we are at 40 or 50 or 85. Our faith reminds us that we can change that story. And we can learn new stories. Sometimes we carry around a story we’ve been telling ourselves for a long time, too long, a story that is keeping us from living well, a story that is holding us hostage rather than helping to liberate us and the world. Author Michael Margolis says, "The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions." Unitarian Universalism is working to change its story. We are striving to tell a new story that is radically anti-racist, anti-oppression, and multicultural. We are still learning the way, individually and as an institution.
This morning I invite you to consider your own life story—in six words or sixty or 600 hundred words. Are there untold stories that need to be told? Are there stories that need to be rewritten? What new stories are you writing? Exploring these questions is exciting, inspiring, filled with promise and possibility—and perhaps also a bit daunting. When we tell our stories we will be transformed. When someone listens to our story with genuine respect, then we will be transformed.
We are called to journey together in this spiritual and human adventure. We are called to tell the stories that are giving shape and meaning to our world. And we are called to listen to the stories that are giving shape and meaning to others. We are called to write and rewrite our narratives as a holy act. In the words of song writer Joyce Poley,
May our hearts be in a holy place. May we be storytellers and storylisteners. Amen. Blessed be.