WHAT'S IN A STORY?
Here's what I know: Story is emergent—hearing one sparks another within us. Story is connective—we associate with each other through our experiences. Story is reciprocal—it helps us to engage, resonate and empathize. Story conveys understanding—good ones exude complex emotion and truth. Stories help us feel and learn.
I count myself lucky as a sharer of story, often ones of people overcoming—of finding their way, making it and telling the tale.
One of my first stories was about Jill, who lived in a Salvation Army shelter in Los Angeles for homeless families affected by HIV/AIDS. Jill told me about the moment she learned she was positive—and pregnant. The baby would be born infected. Her baby, then 2, had to take four vials of antiretroviral medication a day.
Jill became a mom and it changed her for good. She had a new story to write.
In my work, I like to think I’m in the business of selling change—to enable people to see possibilities, solutions, and their part in them. And to help others become the hero of the story.
For Sarai, who joined the circus at 13 in Nepal and was sold into forced commercial sex work, an individual who read her story became a hero in it.
I met Sarai in Mumbai’s red-light district where she helped to run a Salvation Army drop-in center for prostituted women and a night shelter for young boys. The reader offered to cover the center's monthly rent.
But it doesn’t always come full circle so beautifully. It can easily feel like a story disappears, unseen. So, you have to know why it matters for yourself.
I think, in order to do your best work, you have to be a true believer in the story. If you don’t think it counts, no one else will.
This must be a feeling among those doing the work, as well, like the epidemiologists working with The Salvation Army to prevent and intervene in childhood obesity in partnership with local elementary schools.
I'm out for a different kind of cure, one that asks for curiosity, determination, honesty, and a big heart—especially given the impact a story can have.
A story can make someone feel appreciated.
The Vargases are Salvation Army officers (pastors) in Tijuana, who simultaneously operated a corps (church), two outposts (mini-churches), and three social service programs, including a migrant center where 200 recently deported men can eat, shower, sleep and make calls as they transition.
Nearby, an extended hours day care allows kids to stay safe from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. while their parents work. Because it is an area with high kidnapping and child trafficking, the Vargases also focused on building awareness of trafficking in the community in order to prevent it.
A story can make someone feel known, connected and believed in—from a woman living on Cuban rations, to a farmer of coffee beans in Vietnam, or a social services professional who devises a new way to reach people experiencing homelessness.
A story can make someone feel loved.
Mary Lawson served dinner to the community in Compton every Monday night for 32 years.
She was recognized in a surprise ceremony before her final dinner as head chef by friends, city council and staff.
“God gives me the menu and I make it; it’s not that I love to cook, but that God has committed me to this work,” she said. “This is a five-star feeding program, and when people come in, I like to treat them like they’re in my home.”
I've made it part of my job to believe in people and possibility.
Like Josseline, who lived at the Way in Center in Hollywood for homeless or aged out teens. At 21, she was just reclaiming custody of her two children. She had recently found a job, completed a year of Narcotics Anonymous and was in school to become dental assistant.
There's so much detail beneath the skin. It's easy to look into someone’s records and discover their finances or arrest warrants, but you will never know how it felt to no longer afford to live indoors or to be reunited with a child—you don’t really know someone—until you talk to them.
Until you know their story.
Take Mike, who was court ordered to rehabilitation with The Salvation Army, addicted to meth and in and out of jail.
He completed the program, and for more than 20 years since has worked at the Anaheim Adult Rehabilitation Center, where he is the transportation supervisor overseeing 14 routes for an average of 300 donation pickups in Orange County each day.
“I was pretty mixed up and messed up, and The Salvation Army saved my life," he said. "I learned to suit up and show up—to go to work every day and give 100 percent. I learned to be respectful and respected.”
That's a story.
So what’s in a story?
It’s not only me that likes stories of people overcoming—that’s the fundamental formula of story.
S = (C + W) * O
A good story is about an interesting character who wants something and faces obstacles in the struggle to achieve it.
The scientific study around story—Narrative Transportation Theory—tells us that through story we feel empathy for the other. If our attention is captured by a story, we’re likely to come to share the emotions of the characters in it—their want, their values.
So how will you connect to the characters in your life? What is your want? What is the narrative engine that gives life to your story?
Find your way. Embrace your story. Live to tell the tale.