Storytelling Moon - Wisdom Stories
During the Storytelling Moon— the depths of the cold time here in the Northern Hemisphere—is a time of refreshment and renewal by reading and listening to stories. “Curling up by a fire with a good book” is a phrase I often hear describing a delicious moment, seemingly stolen. The Protestant work ethic has made “idleness the work of the devil” so we find it hard to take time to sit, read, listen, and ponder. Yet, it is in these slow times that we take time to think about our lives, our relationships, our challenges, and our joys. If we do not have reflective times, we cannot process the stuff of our lives into wisdom.
I look back and remember my Dad loving to read to us…usually in December to January during holidays, but on summer holidays too. He always read inspirational stories, usually with some moral to teach. I loved his voice…the rise and fall of his baritone voice, his pauses, the punctuated or flowing rhythm, the wistful trailing off at end of a poignant sentence. When we were children, having to sit still and listen was hard…especially to adult-like stories. We would groan… “Daaaad, pluueeese…not another story….!!” All four of us tried to convey how he was torturing us. He ignored us and flipped purposefully through, finding the right one. For Christmas, he would spend hours in his office reading through his books for just the right story to speak to that moment in our family. Even now I remember the lump in my throat and fighting back tears, as we saw our lives in a mirror. The equivalent today would probably be the Chicken Soup books, but his were more poetic devotional books, which he has read throughout his life.
Despite only a Grade 8 education, he conveyed the importance of stories and times of reflectiveness. He had wanted to be a pastor, but his lack of education prevented this. Nevertheless, he was always a devotional leader in the church…a philosopher-carpenter. As a young woman in the 70s, I begged him to hire me in the summers, so that I could make a decent amount of money for university. Against my mother’s better judgement, I worked for him several summers and during the school year. His foreman was a deeply spiritual man just like Dad, and together they would tell the most delicious stories, always with a point to share. Even then, I knew these were privileged moments among wise and gentle men. Working out on the prairies, raising homes and barns, I knew I belonged…from the lovely nicknames they gave me, to their sharing of knowledge about the birds, animals, and weather, their childhood stories, and their thoughts on politics, religion, and daily lived issues.
I know he was mimicking his own parents who read to his large family, as there were only two books in the house, the Bible and the hymnal. Prior to literacy, the elders would have been the oral story tellers and family record keepers. Songs were another mechanism of story, reflection, solace, and gratitude, no matter how difficult life was. Of course, the Christian church also gave us a retinue of stories. My favorite were Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, known as the wisdom books.
In his later years, Dad tried to tell us his personal stories…but we were too sophisticated by then. Yet, the learning stuck deep in my soul. I heard his desire and started to show up with my tape recorder to audiotape his stories. Years later, I compiled his growing-up stories and the stories of my aunties and uncles…with all the joy, humour, sadness, hardship, tragedy, and resulting wisdom that saturated the telling. Even as a child, I remember their life lessons… “At your age, you should…” or “Always remember to….” or "Now, that means...." They understood their lives as deeply rooted in family, soil, and faith, rich with meaning.
By comparison, in my teen years, the core question my friends and I struggled with is, “Who am I?” the quintessential modern question. In retrospect, my ancestors had not been fully modernized yet, so they did not seem (as?) troubled by this question. But my friends and I agonized over it throughout high school and beyond. The advanced education we would receive took us out of our ancestral locale and extended family. While a point of pride for the family, we were in the process of losing our roots.
When I needed to move across the country for a job, my mom called all my aunties and uncles together for a farewell party, so that I knew what and who I was leaving. These are the terrible conflicts that our capitalist economy, professionalization, and mobile society has created for us. We try to make it work, but now children are even less rooted, trying even harder to understand their place in the world. I told my children the stories of their births so that they would understand their belonging, the families they were born into. I read many good stories to them at bedtime, beyond the little years. Nevertheless, we have all been mesmerized by shallow movies, computer games, and other base entertainment. We have lost the importance of real stories, important stories, and therefore the most common pathways to wisdom.
Wisdom has been sidelined by science, considering itself the source of truth and certainty. Yet, as sociologist Max Weber suggests, science will not, and honestly cannot, tell us what is a good and wise life. This was left to arcane philosophy and religion, manifesting in centuries of religious war. So, how do we find and how can we teach wisdom now?
The Western tradition has called wisdom stories “myths, fables, or fairy tales”, connotating the irrational or unreal. Yet, these were spiritual stories with much deeper meaning than meets the eye. When people are colonized they hide their wisdom often as "children's stories". These stories are carriers of wisdom that connect with the deepest levels of being and existential meaning. Now, however, they have lost their context.
Indigenous people call wisdom stories Big Stories…the stories that tell a people of their place in the cosmos, their origins, and the responsibilities they carry. Gregory Cajete says these stories provide a sacred orientation to a place, creating kinship with the land. They also provide a set of life principles, including humility, respect, wisdom, honesty, love, courage, honour, and reverence. These stories are meant to teach, heal, and at times, transform. It was this faint resonance that I was picking up in my family.
Joanne Archibald (2008) from the Sto:lo First Nation in the Pacific Northwest of Canada suggests, “a good story can reach into your heart, mind and soul, and really make you think hard about yourself in relationship to the world”. Stories can "take on their own life" and "become the teacher". As Basil Johnston explains, “Words are medicine that can heal or injure…”. Van Duesen adds, they “[awaken] a powerful creative energy in tellers and listeners”. Big Stories have multiple meanings and purposes, which is not given to the listeners or even discussed. Listeners must learn to listen and personally work to understand. They must allow the story to work on them. These stories are present in every intact peoples, because it enables them to develop wisdom as they walk the Road of Life. They teach how to offer gratitude, to give pause and ponder the ultimate meaning of life, and offer guidance for moral action. Mythology historian Joseph Campbell suggests that historically, the maturation of adults has always been toward wisdom.
Yet, what is wisdom? For too long, wisdom has resided outside of science, social science, and even educational discussions, as nondefinable. With exciting brain research, there is now evidence that wisdom partially has a biological basis in the brain. Wisdom, say neuroscientists Dilip Jeste and Scott Lafee (2020), has generally been a process where life experiences are remade into lessons as well as habits of living which we witness as wisdom. After studying the regions of the brain associated with various capacities and exploring many cultural descriptions of wisdom, they developed what they believe are the characteristics closely associated with wisdom. They are:
prosocial attitudes, generally high levels of empathy and compassion for others and acts of altruism;
emotional stability, generally a high degree of self-control and emotional regulation;
balancing decisiveness and accepting uncertainty, where individuals acknowledge perspectives different from their own as equally valid, they do not succumb to fear or ascribe negative traits or motivations to others who are different, they are comfortable in the face of uncertainty, holding a position of calmness;
self-reflection, generally with intuition and insight they reflect on their habits and motivations to guide themselves through difficult situations with self-awareness and openness;
pragmatic knowledge for life, where they are sought out for their ability to offer sound reasoning and advice to others; and
spirituality, with a basic belief in something larger than themselves and in a deep purposefulness in the universe.
If these are the qualities, where are the stories that carry this wisdom in the telling? This is our job now in the late modern era to dig deep for the big stories, including from our ancestry. I could never explain why I loved the books and film Lord of the Rings so much, until I realized that Tolkien was inspired by the old Germanic and Scandinavian mythologies. Tolkien was triggering a much-faded ancient memory in me.
We must find worthy stories, not cheap stories made for profit, or those that desecrate old stories. We must not appropriate the cultural stories of others but find the folktales and stories that spoke to our own people(s). For instance, my ancestors believed in a World Tree Yggdrasil that was the centre of the cosmos and anchored three levels of reality, all fed by the fountain of Mimir, in whose sacred waters all the wisdom of the universe flows. Humankind was created from two trees, thus they revered trees. Through stories of the World Tree, I can dip into this sacred river of wisdom.
We can listen to the stories of our elders, the wisdom they have gleaned. We can tell their stories to our descendants. We can learn to story our own lessons of wisdom, to pass them on. We can develop our own story of this moment in history, as humankind makes powerful life and death choices. Let us return to the wisdom stories that encourage us to live our higher qualities, respecting “all our relations”. These are the seeds for a new era, a wiser era.