Once upon a time…

Death is probably the thing we fear the most: for ourselves, for our loved ones. When ‘nothingness’ becomes permanent; the ultimate, irreversible change. It’s a terrifying thought. So, of course, we don’t talk about it. But perhaps we should.

I was struck by an article I recently read by the journalist Owen Jones, which talked about the death of his father to cancer four months earlier. As he says, “Our culture doesn’t give us the vocabulary to talk to the grieving”; and it’s true. How often in these circumstances do we hear ourselves confess to not knowing what to say? Words fail us. I usually seek out a poem. For me, a poem is the most perfect form of words selected to express the inexpressible.

The truth is that there is no dodging the pain of the death of a loved one. Sometimes it will be a dull, dull ache and other times it will come at you hard and fast and sharp. But, as noted by Jones in that same article, recalling the memories, telling the stories of those we loved, captures the very powerful, very unique ‘something’ of those people. Their ‘being in the world’ is remembered and re-told and, in turn, these stories give us the meaning of those people’s lives. Take this very powerful example of the Guardian newspaper’s front page on 14th May this year.

Humans have a necessary desire to make meaning. As humans, our brains are hardwired to want to answer unknown questions. Our brains don’t like being in ‘unknowing’. This is what drives us forward to keep learning and keep discovering. But, of course, there are some things we can’t know. So how do we deal with this ‘unknowing’? Well, of course, we create stories. For some, when it comes to death, this can take the form of an all-knowing, omnipotent God. For others, it’s the reality of science (although that always answers the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ for me). But, in reality, we tell stories about our lives all the time with us as the central protagonist. As noted by the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, our brains are naturally story processors, not logical processors; stories allow us to understand the world and create meaning for ourselves and for others.

So, who would have thought that stories were such powerful things; they are not facts or data or ‘truths’. They are the subjective telling of things. Yet, as advances in neuroscience and psychology is revealing, there is so much more to stories. Think about how, the world over, we read bedtime stories to our children. Child psychologists show how story making and story-hearing develops naturally in young children. Academic and author, Jonathan Gottschall argues that storytelling has evolved to ensure our survival; nature has shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot.

Stories are also powerful in helping us place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. As a white, middle-class woman living in the West, how can I possibly imagine what it is like to be a refugee? How can I possibly imagine what it is like to feel like I am trapped in the ‘wrong’ body? How can I possibly imagine what it is like to have witnessed my community decimated by years of under-investment and neglect? By reading and listening, by opening myself up to the experiences of others and hearing their story, their voice.

Yes, we can use stories to put up walls and create hatred towards ‘others’ (that Brexit poster anyone?!). Or we can allow people to tell us their story, not one spun by people in power for their own ends.

Whilst they may not always finish with a ‘happy ever after’, stories can fulfil many different needs and help us navigate and make sense of the world; in that sense they are deeply human.

This photograph is a picture of my dad, William Bowker Whittaker, taken at one of his summer jobs during his student years. Here he’s working as a barman at a hotel in Newquay. According to mum he chose summer jobs in nice places. One year he was a bus conductor on the Isle of Wight, another he sold ice creams at Old Trafford cricket ground. He looks happy. Friends, when they see this photo, say that I look like him, although my brother is the spitting image. He died when I was very young and so I didn’t really get to know him. Stories from my mum, of their courting days, sound fun and romantic. (They met when they both worked at Dunlops in London, where he would find any excuse to visit mum at her desk.) He wrote her poems – there’s one called The Elephant  & Castle Blues! She still has an Oliver theatre programme with dad’s romantic notes scribbled in the margin, which she keeps alongside his love letters. My dad died when he was very young and these stories, and many others, in addition to piecing together more about his childhood (he was fostered and then adopted) have become an important way for me to connect with him.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

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