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The Lessons in Our Stories

Great Hearts Institute August 2, 2023 -

One reason that my wife and I so enjoy the annual Great Hearts National Symposium for Classical Education is the chance to interact with people who not only find facts fascinating, but who recognize those facts as stepping stones to something even greater: wisdom. This is also a reason that I am a professional author and storyteller of both non-fiction and fiction stories. It is through our stories that a culture, or a family, passes along what it considers most vital, those traditions and concepts upon which we base decisions and relationships. Embedded in our traditions and stories is the treasure that I think everyone instinctively wants: the sense that there is meaning in each of our lives.

A good story focusses on the importance of how a person acts at pivotal moments, leading to the awareness that there can be importance and dignity in our own lives, too. I have seen the changes in people’s eyes, body language, and level of concentration as I have told stories that really brought listeners inside a character. In fact, that identification with a character, and the transference to our own lives, is almost the definition of “a good story”. And the character doesn’t have to be a president, or a famous explorer, scientist, or musician. In fact, one of the most valuable lessons in the land of stories is that no one is “ordinary”. Everyone has something worth noting and appreciating.

Those who attack other people choose to denigrate that lesson, using mockery as a weapon. But truly great or excellent people do not mock; they support and help others who are seeking to build themselves up. That’s what the stories do, too: while listening to or reading them, we identify strongly enough that the armor we all wear in one another’s company — out of fear that we will reveal who we really are and be mocked for it — simply falls off. We find ourselves sharing our deepest common humanity through the character. And that is when the real learning happens.

The three greatest historians and biographers of the Ancient World – Herodotus and Thucydides in Greece, and Plutarch in Rome — agreed that studying others offered useful examples to the rest of us – if we would pay attention. Herodotus emphasized the importance of circumstances more than the particular people involved. Thucydides looked closely at the role of human nature in shaping outcomes. In his book “The Peloponnesian War”, he wrote, “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” He worried that, “Most people… will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are… inclined to accept the first story they hear.” So Thucydides determined to be the one to tell that first story! His study of one war, in which he himself fought, led him to recognize that all wars really are the same. He warned, “Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils (of war). To this must be added the violent fanaticism that came into play once the struggle had broken out. The citizens who held moderate views… were destroyed by both the extreme parties.” He added, “It will be enough for me… if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand events which happened in the past, and which — human nature being what it is — will at some time or other, in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”

Centuries later, Plutarch determined to go beyond the facts he worked so hard to uncover, and mine the stories for life lessons. He insisted that history must teach us how to live better lives, and wrote that the most revealing moments were not always the big, dramatic battles or discoveries. Often, the real revelations came in offhanded remarks or quiet decisions that revealed the “real” person and motives. Those were the “useful” incidents.

I would suggest that our need for such wisdom and sharing is critical right now, when we are divided and not communicating as we should. At home, we are confronted almost daily with mass shootings of children and adults whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and images from the battlefields of another brutal war in Europe. In despair we ask, “Aren’t we just repeating the other wars and attacks, and the Holocaust, and the dehumanization that gave rise to them? What’s the use of opposing these events when they keep happening anyway?” But here we confront another lesson from our stories: we do not have the luxury of simply giving up. It is our task to study and promote peace and kindness. Anything less is to let down our ancestors who struggled for these things, and our children and grandchildren who will inherit our world.

Today, all of our institutions are under attack. The educated search to find, and use, the traditional wisdom is the most important quest before us. It is time to apply the lessons in our stories. We must carry on the quiet work of true education, asking (especially?) the hard questions, and advancing and sharing knowledge. We have to look to our traditions and ways of being, keeping the best of the past while being unafraid to shift elements that no longer serve us.
The effort is why we are here

Jim Weiss, a native of Illinois, has been a professional storyteller for nearly 30 years. In 1989, he and his wife, Randy, founded the production company Greathall Productions, which has since won more than 100 major awards. Weiss has narrated many audiobooks, including Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Catch 22.