© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 15, 2012
Every night when I went to bed as a child, my father told me Jimmy stories. Jimmy, whose name just coincidentally happened to sound a lot like mine, was the hero of the tales my father would invent, and they were marvelous. I still remember many of their details to this day - like his stopwatch that actually stopped time, and the consequences of it breaking mid-freeze. Jimmy was always getting into and out of trouble and I loved getting lost in this make believe world as I fell asleep every night.
To me at that age, stories were holy in the purest sense of that word. In my innocence, I held in great reverence the creation of a story. When I first began to write my own for school, I strongly bristled against the idea that one could edit a story. To me at the time this felt like cheating. Informed by my naive ideas of a perfect, divine force controlling all events, I felt that if a story had merit, it would simply flow into this world without need for a single edit after the fact.
My ideas quickly came into conflict with everything I learned in school. Editing, re-working, starting over - none of these things fit with my early model. But as I learned more about how the incredible books and movies I experienced were created, I realized I needed to update my story-creation myth. The first time I watched the credits for a movie and saw how many people it took to create this incredible story, my world crumbled. But the best part of a worldview crumbling is putting it back together again with the new information.
Over time I began to realize that anything that is created has a complicated birthing process far from the simplistic vision of my youth. Creation is a shared event, a process involving possibilities being shepherded into actuality. It was some time until it finally dawned on me that a good story was just as much about the relationship between the teller and the hearer as it was about creating a perfect product on the first try.
Have you ever been listening to someone tell a story and felt a deep connection with them? It is amazing how stories have a way of actually transforming us in a much deeper way than facts and rational arguments do.
And now, the incredible new discipline of brain science is providing yet again new information that must be incorporated into my story-creation myth. The latest results are fascinating.
It turns out that when scientists had someone in one of those new MRI brain-scanning machines telling a story to a number of people also in these machines, that something incredible was revealed. It appears as if the storyteller almost takes control of the listener's brain. Before beginning the story, each brain shows its own unique patterns of electrical activity. But once the story begins, they all quickly begin to mirror, almost exactly, the electrical patterns and activity of the storyteller. It happens in the same location and intensity and shifts and moves in the same pattern as well.
To me, this is scientific confirmation of what I have thought about the power of stories for a long time, and why I think that sharing our stories is one of the most important things we can do. When we tell our stories to each other, we literally change each other's minds! We literally change each other's minds. We help the other think like us, to see the world like us, just for a moment.
Among the highest virtues of humankind, celebrated by every religion and ethical system, is compassion. We get the word Compassion form Latin, and it means "to suffer together with." It is the idea that we can truly feel another's pain, to empathize with them.
At a time when we are told again and again that we are divided, when we are shown nightly on the news maps of red and blue areas of the country, it is important - I would even argue it is life-saving - to be reminded that all of those divisions are illusions. When we share our stories and hear about the life behind the terms we believe we are forced to define ourselves with, we finally return to the deepest truth of all: that we aren't so different after all, and that we are all interconnected and dependent on each other in the deepest, scariest most beautiful way possible.
I think telling our stories and hearing about other people's lives is not just some leisure activity. As fun as it can be, as enveloping as a good story is, it is also a life-saving activity.
A good example of this is how we have been able to turn the tide in the fight for same-sex marriage. At one point in this struggle we tried to win with a rational argument: Same sex couples deserve the same protections under the law because all people deserve to have their relationships valued. But this approach failed to change many hearts and minds. But when people began telling their stories to those in their lives who did not know they were gay and were against same sex marriage, the tide truly began to turn.
Telling our stories changes people's minds. It really does.
To be exposed to as diverse a set of stories as possible through our education is critical. This is how we grow compassionate children. Which is why something that is happening right now in Fremont has me very concerned.
This summer, the Fremont School Board once again chose to censor the literature used in this school district. Washington High School English teacher Teri Wu was told that she could not use Bastard out of Carolina, a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, for her Advanced Placement Senior level class.
This is not the first time the Board has decided to censor what is read in the classroom. For several years now the board has voted to prohibit the reading of this book and Angels in America one of the most influential plays of our time. Over the recommendation of not only teachers but their own Curriculum advisory committee.
The School Board reserves the right to veto the resources used by our teachers. I find myself wondering what is next. Even if you agree with their recent decisions, what happens if they decide that something in a science textbook is troubling? What if they don't like the way history is portrayed in a textbook? Perhaps we should trust that the teachers and curriculum review board are capable of finding appropriate educational materials for their particular expertise. I don't think that we want the education of our children to be dependent upon the personal preferences of a school board.
And let me illustrate why. In explaining her decision to ban the use of Bastard out of Carolina to the San Jose Mercury News, board President Lily Mei at first claimed that she "didn't feel it was of substantial educational value." But later she added that she felt the book The Color Purple, while exploring similar themes was "more uplifting." And in other books, "there are characters out there that go through rape and abuse and have better endings." This is exactly the problem. The decision was not based on ethical or moral principles, but on a personal preference towards an uplifting storyline. But it is not the job of a school board to protect our children from real life. Yes, we want to make sure that they are learning age-appropriate material. But we do not want to shield them from the world. In fact, I would argue that it is our obligation to equip them to live fully in the world, as it is.
The other mistake this school board is making is assuming that these kids haven't already encountered the challenging material they will read about in the now-censored works. Maybe part of what we want to teach in the classroom is that whatever your circumstance, it is possible to overcome. Even if we yearn for them to be surrounded by uplifting stories, that is not the world in which we live. Like it or not, they will be faced with all that life offers; the good, the bad and the ugly.
What educators like Teri Hu are trying to do is give these young people a chance to wrestle with the full spectrum of humanity in a safe environment, managed by a skilled and highly trained educator, before they are on their own making these decisions in real time, with real consequences. She is trying to use the amazing power of story the best way it can be used. We cannot be with our children as they become adults; it is a journey they must make without us. Equipping them with the moral muscles to make the right decisions is what happens when they explore transforming stories like Bastard out of Carolinaand Angels in America and then discuss them with their peers, teachers and parents.
This is at the core of our own Unitarian Universalist philosophy, most obviously with our fourth principle, which is the "Free and responsible search for truth and meaning." But it goes beyond this as well. Our first principle is "The Inherent worth and dignity of all people." I think that for many of us, this, or something like it, is at the very core of our value systems. That all people have value, and the clearest way to honor this central truth is to tell all of our stories, to make it safe to explore the full spectrum of the human experience, in an age-appropriate manner.
This to me is an important reminder of the unique role we at Mission peak could play in this community. It tells me that Fremont desperately needs our voice. May we continue to find new ways to empower the powerless, give a voice to the voiceless, and make sure that no one's story is made to have less value.
May it be so. Ashe.
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