Storytelling to Restore the Sacred in Our Lives by Najeeba Syeed Miller

I was recently offering a workshop to a group of Muslim educators from all types of ethnic, racial and community backgrounds. One of my points in the training on conflict resolution was the importance of story telling,the many ways that stories are formed, told and uttered in different cultural contexts. Sometimes, the content of the story is less important that the WAY we tell the story. We talked about how to listen to the form of the story being told, its inherent design logic, and what we learn about a person and her community from the way she chooses to tell her story especially in times of conflict. For it is in conflict times that we resort to what is most familiar and sacred to us all.

For years, I have had the honor of being a peacemaker, a mediator who listens to people’s stories. I jokingly told a colleague that I could tell what they were thinking even as they were telling their story just by the way they sat, how their hands moved, whether they looked away at certain points or by what they also did not say. It is important to hear a story being told as a fully embodied experience. The words, the way they are arranged, the flow of the narrative, its resonance with body language give you a more complete vision and experience of the story and insights into the storyteller.

So I thought about the ways stories play into my work, into my life and into my recovery of the sacred capacity of humans to build peace with each other. Some thoughts:

Storytelling as Spiritual/Cultural Recovery:

For me, I was often told a story of a young man in Kashmir who misbehaved and the ramifications of his life style on his own family. My mother would quietly tell these stories when she found us misbehaving and the stories contained lessons not just for the simple act we were doing, but to have us think and ponder and reflect. In many communities, stories are told to socialize children and families into patterns and to build bonds by understanding the deep web of relationships we both emanate from and the histories of our communities.

My mother was telling me the about the culture of our community. We were a generation interrupted, disrupted through immigration from the bonds of family and her stories introduced the Kashmiri sensibilities that were passed from generations in her family of those who were spiritual guides and leaders. In essence we has lost modalities of spiritual care and support systems for counseling that were built into our social and familial systems.

I was gathering little pieces and pictures of the threads that wove me into the fabric of families that had cultivated a spiritual path of sharing common stories that exhibited both good adab (etiquette) and deep kinship bonds. Even the remnants I carry with me, I pass on to my children in telling them the stories I can remember and continuing in small ways the beauty of the ancestors.

What if we had ways to capture those stories in more depth for those who suffer from this disruption? To restore and adapt spiritual care models in our community within this new context? How does connecting with this cultural past tell us who we are now and give us clues into our everyday existence that could be easily explained by these clues from our past? What beauties have been lost and how do our constructions of the past and disconnections lend a shallow understanding of our present? What lessons are there to learn, what difficult and painful pasts have been lost and obscured? How might this explain the ways people act trauma out now in their lives?

Storytelling as Cognitive Development

The Muslim community is one that is blessed with the command to ponder, to reflect to question and to explore the natural world for stories that teach us ways to grow both as human beings and to relate to our intricate ecosystem. The purpose for storytelling in in our scriptures is:

Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think! Qur’an(10:24)

Storytelling is not only a form of developing the heart, it is a tool to sharpen our minds. When I use storytelling with children for conflict resolution purposes, we talk about the lessons of each person in the narrative.

We also explore the inner intellectual life of the characters within the narrative they are either telling me or we are reading together. For young children this is the beginning of perspective taking and understanding and cultivating empathy. I’ve written about that topic more extensively:

We often forget that empathy is a learned skill. It is also one that is relate to the capacity of a child to language their anger and their pain. Early childhood psychologists point out that physical violence can actually decrease to the degree we can help young children articulate their anger, their pain and eventually find verbal tools to negotiate through it instead of acting out physically.

So as I work with young children, I begin to ask them not just about the emotions of the individuals in the narrative they are telling me or we are reading, but also about the inner intellectual lives of the characters in their stories. What does it take to get in the heads of the characters to understand what caused the conflict? What are the consequences of actions? What are the effects of choices? How might you have done it differently? What are the resources available in these situations? What would you do if you were in the character’s head? What words hurt? What words help? How does it help or not help to share our stories? How is each character describing this conflict? What words are they using? What ideas for solutions do they have? Are they sharing their solution ideas? What ideas for solutions do you have? What do we do when we have different ideas for solutions? What is it like to live with people who have ideas different from you? Can you find a way to live with people whose ideas are different than yours, what does that look like everyday?

Building empathy through storytelling means developing and cultivating the tools for patience and active listening. Not only does storytelling have the potential to heal the person who tells the story, it can heal the listener who by learning how to see the world from another perspective but also gains insights into new ways to solve problems.

This article is cross-posted on Najeeba’s World.

Najeeba Syeed-Miller, J.D., is Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology. She has extensive experience in mediating conflicts among communities of ethnic and religious diversity, and has won awards for her peacemaking and public interest work.  Najeeba also writes her own blog, “Najeeba’s world,” and can be followed on Twitter @najeebasyeed. 

One thought on “Storytelling to Restore the Sacred in Our Lives by Najeeba Syeed Miller”

  1. As a writer of fiction, I really enjoyed this post. I am always aware when writing that there is a deeper obligation to the story, and to the reader, than merely to entertain. Thank you for sharing beautiful thoughts and insights.


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