Spring 2017

The story is everything

The story is everything. Each of us has one. Each of us is in the midst of living in one. Actually each of us is living in many stories and, like our lives, our stories rub shoulders with each other and intersect. Sometimes they collide. Or collude. Our stories barge past each other and melt into each other’s arms. Our stories partake of both communion and conflict, celebration and sadness, pleasure and lament.

When we tell our stories to each other, including the stories people have entrusted to us, we enter into a powerful sacramental space of healing. Stories create solidarity and therefore tenderness and strength.

John Berger, the great poet and art critic who died earlier this year, once wrote:

‘Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.’

This is beautiful. Its meaning is only too apparent to us if we are engaged in the struggle for a better society, the most sacred struggle there is. When people experience oppression, they are deliberately made to feel that their pain is theirs alone.

The structure and history of oppression and injustice is steeped with this intent: to isolate and atomise. The woman experiencing domestic violence is made to feel that she is to blame for the patriarchal violence and degradation she is forced to suffer. She is further made to feel that she is alone, that her story is so shamefully hers alone that somehow she is deserving of this cruelty and inhumanity; that in fact she should be grateful, because she deserves even worse!

The young worker who is exploited in the workplace is similarly instructed that they are lucky to have a job and should be grateful even though they are being deliberately underpaid, or harassed, effectively having their wages stolen and their rights suppressed.

Wherever we look, people are systematically made to feel that their story is ‘the only one’.

In one sense, this is, of course, true. Every story is utterly unique. No two stories are completely identical. Each story is an unrepeatable intersection between history and socio-economic structure; between the personal and the collective.

The point of Berger’s utterance though is that, unique as our stories may be, there is more that unites us than divides. Our stories have more in common than we dare hope or imagine. This is why sharing our stories establishes common ground and a sense of our common cause.

It is also why the suppression of stories is the most powerful means of keeping us apart. This is classically exemplified right across the stories of child sexual abuse. Children were, and are, consistently told that they must not tell anyone what is happening to them; that they or those they love will be punished if they do; that no one will believe them; that they are to blame for what is happening to them. We know, from the incredibly powerful and courageous evidence presented to the Royal Commission, that this has literally killed people.

When people tell us their stories we have a sacred obligation to carry these stories carefully in our hands as we journey towards the creation of a better society. This is at the heart of good advocacy and activism. It is also about honouring the sacred humanity of our companions, and acting as real companions to them in solidarity and deep respect.

Our story as members of the St Vincent de Paul Society is made of these stories. Our founding story, our story of the gospel calling to justice and compassion, our story as a movement of love, all of this, like any story, is constantly and joyously changing and growing.

Our collective story is a source of hope. It is like a home to us. The Indian writer Joydeep Roy- Bhattacharya, in The Storyteller of Marrakesh, a novel dealing with oral storytelling traditions, wrote:

‘It is certainly safe inside a house… but safer inside a story where everything connects.’

We have good reason to feel safe inside our collective story. Everything does, in sometimes strange and unexpected ways, connect. We should not feel threatened by the stories that come through our door, seeking to make a home with our story.

But our story suffers a real sense of Marrakesh, a novel dealing with oral storytelling traditions, wrote: ‘It is certainly safe inside a house… but safer inside a story where everything connects.’

We have good reason to feel safe inside our collective story. Everything does, in sometimes strange and unexpected ways, connect. We should not feel threatened by the stories that come through our door, seeking to make a home with our story.

But our story suffers a real sense of disjuncture when we falsely imagine that it stopped developing a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, or even five years ago. Similarly, it suffers disjuncture when we impose artificial restrictions on what (or who!) we think is connected and what is not.

The truth is that our sense of safety in the story can be both an inhibitor to inclusion and change as much it can be a place of security in the face of the challenging, the uncomfortable and the new.

Congress 2017 is going to be a space in which we explore and celebrate our story and ask what we are going to do with it; how we might write the next paragraphs and chapters, who is going to appear in them, and how our collective action to create a better world will unfold!

The Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, says that ‘literature is made out of tangles’. Let us take our tales and tangles and together make something beautiful from them!


Dr John Falzon is CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

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