When the world is crying, what do storytellers do?
We tell stories.
We tell tales to heal hurts. We tell stories to empathize and to teach empathy. We tell tales to illuminate the paths that build caring communities.
Mostly, we tell stories to remember our humanity.
Telling stories matters, especially when the world is crying.
The events of the shooting at the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina this June stole lives and tore souls apart. It was yet another chink in the heavy curtain of pain that our nation wears, pain wrought from hatred, violence, and racism.
But out of all the turmoil in Charleston, a particular glimmer of hope caught me up. On Sunday evening, walkers gathered on Charleston’s Arthur Ravenel Bridge to stand together in the face of crisis. It was a show of unity, not division. This important, historical moment brought an old, traditional story to mind, an important one for any time, but especially important in times of splintering divides.
There once was an elderly man who was at death’s door. He lay in his bed, day and night, too weak to walk or care for himself.
Every day, one of his three sons came to the house to tend to his needs. His boys took turns. They never came at the same time because his sons did did not get along.
But it hadn’t always been that way. As children, the boys played and laughed. They shared one pizza and divided eight slices evenly when the youngest got old enough to want more. “Wanna wrestle?” they cried to their Dad as they tumbled like wolf puppies around the living room. Their relationship wasn’t perfect, they argued and fought like other brothers and sisters everywhere. Still, they loved and supported each other.
As they grew older, they stopped playing. They didn’t spend time together. Their life paths diverged and they argued about politics, about money, and about all the things with the power to destroy relationships. Their arguments came between them so deeply that they would never visit their father at the same time.
It pained their father to see how intent they were on avoiding each other.
As his illness grew worse, he realized that he had to try something. One day, he called each of them on the phone and said that none of the others could come on Wednesday afternoon of the next week. So it happened that all three arrived at the same time that day to take care of their Dad. When they entered his room, their stiff silence was punctured with a gasp.
Their father was sitting up in bed. It was the first time in months that he sat up on his own. And on his lap was an old, tin box.
“Boys, I need to ask you to do me a favor. Go outside, each of you, and bring back two strong sticks.”
Silently, they left the room. When they returned, their father said, “Now boys, each of you break one of the sticks.”
It was easy. Each stick snapped in two.
“Now, pass me your other stick.”
When their father held one of the other sticks in his hand, he said, “We have choices in how we live. When we stand divided, the weight of the world breaks us like old, dry sticks.”
Then he placed all three sticks together in a little bundle.. “But when we stand united, what happens?”
He passed the bundle to each of his sons in turn. “Break them,” he commanded.
They pressed and strained on the old wood. Though the bundle bent and flexed, the sticks held strong.
“My sons, when we stand alone, we can snap at life’s challenges like old, brittle sticks. But when we stand together, with others, we can more easily bear the weight of life and its problems. Though we might bend under the pressure, we won’t break.”
The tension in the room eased a bit, like carbonation escaping from a slowly opened bottle. The old man packed that bundle of sticks into the tin box. When he closed the lid with a snap, each young man looked up, as if waking from a dream.
“This is for you, my sons.”
The three young men took turns caring for their father until he died. After that, they took turns caring for their father’s old, tin box. They passed it from one to the other. They started to talk again. Slowly, they learned to overlook their differences to see the good in each other. And best of all, whenever any of them faced trouble, they remembered their father’s bundle of sticks. They drew together and drew strength from each other.
Strength in unity.
The people of Charleston came together for one night to show their unified outrage at senseless shootings. They banded together, like a bundle of sticks.
Stories, old and new, are like the old man’s tin box. They carry wisdom for living life. That is why storytellers tell stories when the world is crying.
What stories do you tell in times of crisis?
Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters All rights reserved.
We retold “The Bundle of Sticks” from “A Father and His Sons”, an Aesop’s fable.
Photo Credit: תמר הירדני / Wikimedia Commons