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Storytelling Can Change Your Life

Stories are the lifeblood of our culture. Good employees, good friends, good leaders—all have learned to appreciate one another’s stories. Here’s what they know

When I was a kid, I thought I knew my grandfather, John Boyett. Paw-Paw had a broad nose and a neck crisscrossed with wrinkles. He smelled like a blend of the minty Copenhagen he dipped and the sawdust of his workshop. He built stuff, and he had all kinds of tools. He watched The Today Show during breakfast and listened to Paul Harvey at lunch. He sang a barrel-deep bass.

I thought I knew Paw-Paw, until, around the age of 12, I attended an air show with him. One of the aircraft on display was an old, World War II-era B-17 Bomber, the legendary “flying fortress.” Paw-Paw took me aboard. As we climbed inside, he began to tell me about the plane: where the bombs were stored and how they were released, where the guns were stationed and the size of the bullets, what kinds of missions the planes flew and in what theaters.

“How do you know so much about this airplane?” I asked from the back of the fuselage.

“Because I was sitting right about where you are when we got shot down.” My eyes grew as wide as Paw-Paw’s nose, but he kept talking.

“The wings caught fire, and the heat was about to weld the door shut. I couldn’t see anything because of the smoke. So I backed up right there”—he pointed to the fuselage wall opposite the hatch through which we’d just entered—“and I jumped at the door with both feet. Went right through and started falling until I remembered to open my parachute.” Then his voice dropped an octave. “Most of my buddies died.”

Based in Italy, my grandfather was on one of his last bombing runs as a 21-year-old side-gunner and flight engineer when his plane encountered enemy fire over Austria. After reluctantly bailing from his post—and his plane—he parachuted directly into Nazi territory. Paw-Paw ended up in a succession of German prisoner-of-war camps. He spent more than a year in captivity, subsisting on watery “stew” and thinking he’d never see his family again. He held on mentally by reading and rereading a bundle of letters from his bride, Mary Ellen, whom he’d left behind in Hollis, Okla.

His escape came as suddenly as his capture. Paw-Paw and a number of other prisoners were eventually herded out of the camp and forced into a cross-country trek at the end of winter, in temperatures so cold he had to set fire to his precious letters to keep his fingers from freezing. “It was intended to be our death march,” he says now. After two weeks, the captors and prisoners neared the Germany-Poland border. Without warning, a Jeep crested the hill ahead of them, driven by a British colonel who’d become lost and accidentally veered into enemy territory. Paw-Paw’s German guards assumed it was the lead vehicle in an Allied onslaught, and they fled. The prisoners stood there stunned, alone and shivering. They had stumbled into freedom, liberated by a Brit’s bad navigation.

I thought I knew Paw-Paw until I heard him tell this story inside the hollow shell of a vintage airplane. His version is usually punctuated with much greater detail, buttressed by self-deprecating humor and, occasionally, some sadness. He tells it rarely. It’s a powerful story, but a difficult one—he didn’t speak of those events at all until many years after the war. I realize now there is much I don’t know about my grandfather. The man I do know was made during those months as a POW, during that march, upon that liberation. To know Paw-Paw is to know his story.

Next time you’re at an office party or backyard barbecue, look around. Who has an audience? Who commands the group’s attention? Here’s a hint: It’s not the guy near the grill trying to impress with collections of facts. It’s not the blowhard pushing a political agenda. Nope. It’s the storyteller, the one who reveals himself, his history, his experiences to the group by way of adventure. He entertains us, and we feel most comfortable in his presence—because in knowing part of his story, we feel we know a part of him.

Stories Help Us Relate

A 1998 article in The New York Times detailed an Internet study by Carnegie-Mellon University. Researchers hooked up 169 individuals in Pittsburgh with free computers and Internet service beginning in 1995. The participants answered a series of questions at the start of the study, then again a couple of years later. The questions measured social contacts, depression, stress and loneliness. You can guess the punchline. In this, the first real study of the social and psychological effects of home Internet usage, the researchers found that people who spend even a handful of hours online have higher levels of loneliness than those who use the computer less frequently. According to the article, the research raised “troubling questions about the nature of virtual communication and the disembodied relationships found in cyberspace.”

Via the Internet, those study participants undoubtedly came into contact with more people than they had previously—that’s one of the benefits of online communities. But how deep was that contact? Was it trite message board chatter? Hastily scrawled emails? Useless variations on “Hi. How R U?”

Aside from a few powerful blog and message board communities, there’s a social element missing from most online activity: the power of stories to build and sustain relationships. The problem today is that we’ve conceded the reins of storytelling over to the media. The plush cineplex and the ever-widening television screen have replaced the dinner table as the primary forum for stories. That’s fine on one hand; some are better storytellers than others, and their voices should be heard. What’s not so good is that the human element is missing. You can’t really interact with a movie (unless, of course, it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Stories Help Us Respect

I used to produce marketing materials for a local retirement community. Over the course of that job, I wrote editorial profiles of that community’s active residents and volunteers, men and women whose past experiences never ceased to surprise me. There’s nothing more fun than the transformation of a demure grandmother into a storytelling force when asked about her childhood. I met frail widows who flew for the Civilian Air Force. I spoke with stooped men who had shaken the hands of presidents. I profiled inventors, business pioneers and authors, including a kind, petite, 80-year-old woman who wrote dozens of pulp Westerns during the ’60s and ’70s under a masculine pseudonym. When I first met these individuals, they were little more than names, room numbers, nursing home residents or retirees. When the interviews were over, they had become inspirations.

It’s easy to feel uncomfortable around people who are different from us—the elderly, the sick, the foreign. At the same time, that discomfort is largely based on the unfamiliar. Whether we admit it or not, we shy away from the unknown. We see a face, a skin color, a collection of wrinkles, and we construct a one-dimensional character sketch—Bitter, Dangerous, Senile—to inject information into the void.

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But we can’t stop there. When we ask questions and listen to the answers, that discomfort begins to decrease, and the unknown becomes known. Stories humanize us. They break through our prejudices. When we know someone’s story, we’ve encountered what’s real and discarded the flimsy caricature. That’s respect.

Stories Help Us Remember

It is said that each generation shares at least one common story—one that, in some way or another, serves to define and unite that generation. For our grandparents, that story is the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war years that followed. For our parents, it was the Kennedy assassination. For us, of course, our common story was written in September of 2001. At work that morning, watching the one television set in my building along with my coworkers, I had the strangest thought: “Remember this. This is where you were when it happened.” I memorized the faces in the room with me, the slant of sunlight through the windows, the dust on the TV screen.

Why? Because I knew it would be a chapter in my story, and an important one. Most of what I now know about my grandfather wasn’t revealed to me that day at the air show, but a few years later on a Saturday afternoon. It was during my junior year of high school, and I was finishing an assignment for my U.S. History class. The assignment was to ask someone where they were and how they felt upon hearing about Pearl Harbor and to record their answer. I asked Paw-Paw. His answer: “I was in Hollis, on the farm, and I was angry. I enlisted the next morning.” That statement was followed by two hours of revelation about the war. I met Paw-Paw that afternoon.

Someday, our kids or grandkids will ask us about September 11th. When they do, they’ll meet something new in us.

Final Thoughts

Stories are societal glue. Since the earliest tribes first squatted around a fire, stories have been our connection to one another. They help us understand. They illustrate who we are. They shape who we will become. What’s your story?

This article is excerpted from Jason Boyett’s Pocket Guide to Adulthood (RELEVANT). This week, all books at RELEVANTstore.com, including this one, are half off.

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