I love reading stories to my grandchildren, especially at bedtime. I love watching their anticipation as they choose a book and snuggle up to me, thumbs in mouths as I begin to read. I love the feeling of their small bodies relaxing, warm from their bath, and comfortably full from their tea, growing heavy as the story progresses and sleep overcomes them.
How fortunate we are, to live in warm, comfortable houses, with plenty to eat and time to share stories – stories that nourish our souls as the food they have eaten nourishes their bodies.
Not everyone is as lucky as we are. A recent trip to Africa, working with poor families whose children had suffered brain damage resulting from malaria, was a poignant reminder of our good fortune. Yet, even there, the power of stories to connect us as human beings was obvious.
We spoke no Swahili. They spoke no English. We are white, middle class, middle-aged, comfortable, well-educated, reasonably healthy. They are black, poor, with little or no education. Their lives, already almost unimaginably hard, have become almost unbearable with the added pressures of caring for severely disabled children.
Through an interpreter, we shared stories of the things that mattered to us. Children. Family. Food. Work. Health – or the lack of it. The possibility of a better life. The things that matter to all of us whatever the colour of our skin, wherever we live, however well educated.
They shared the stories of their lives, the hard work and hardships that shaped their everyday existence. The daily dilemma: shall I work in the field so we can eat or shall I stay home and care for the child? Do I have the strength to carry the child to the field with me? Will I be able to work once I get there? The anguish of having a child who cannot go to school, the anxiety about what will become of them, the very real fear of having no money. As each person talks, the others listen, carefully, attentively, respectfully.
They find things in common, shared experiences. They begin to smile a little. The children play quietly on the concrete floor; the parents talk softly in the shade.
I reflect on the power of stories to bring us together, to make connections, to help us understand that ‘there is more that unites us than divides us’. I notice the power of listening, the kind of listening that helps people feel valued and valuable.
I think that, perhaps, our future health and happiness may rely on our ability to recognise the power of stories to shape our lives, our families, our societies, our cultures, to connect us to one another and to connect the past to the future. Through stories we can express and share our values, our passions, our hopes and fears; we can laugh at ourselves and others, we can weep for ourselves and others. We can explore complexity and hold ambiguity; we can touch the best and the worst in ourselves, we can overcome challenges, loneliness and isolation.
As our world becomes more and more pressured and complex, I hope my grandchildren, together with their friends, families, colleagues and their wider communities, will always find time to tell – and listen to – stories.