With old stories, we remember and learn
My family is in mourning for my mother-in-law, whose death came at the end of November. As people in mourning often do, we have found ourselves telling stories, recalling memories of our beloved deceased.
There is a video clip that has been making the rounds recently on social media, in which actor Andrew Garfield tells “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert that grief is love we have not been able to express. Garfield thanks Colbert for asking about Garfield’s mother. “I love talking about her,” Garfield says.
Indeed, my family will be expressing our love for my motherin-law for years to come, by telling stories about who she was and the varied ways she shared her love with us. We love talking about her. But while family stories are some of the most frequently repeated stories, we repeat stories of all types, over and over.
The instinct to retell stories is so natural and common a human experience that it begins when we are babies, taking pleasure in books that are repeatedly shared with us. Toddlers often seek the same books again and again, even asking for stories to be read to them multiple times in a row. As they get older, many children act out variations of the same stories in their play.
We repeat stories from our lives for a variety of reasons. For example, we use repetitive storytelling to process experiences and organize and integrate new information, but we also use repetitive storytelling to gain different insights from different friends.
Similarly, in faith communities, the repetition of particular stories serves various purposes. For example, we may tell stories to teach, to remember or commemorate, or to regularly refocus our attention.
Jewish people currently celebrating Hanukkah may be sharing the story of the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. Christian people celebrating Advent at this time may be talking about the road to Bethlehem. The stories get repeated every year. (In my own religious community, Unitarian Universalism, we come together not by way of shared beliefs, but more so by way of shared values and commitments, so there are people who tell each of these stories, and people who tell other stories as well.)
Just as naturally as it is for many of us to repeat stories, however, so too is it natural and common to lose interest in oftenrepeated stories. We may find our mind drifting when a friend or relative unintentionally repeats a story they have told us a time or two before. We may find ourselves tempted to rush through the telling of a religious story that feels all too familiar.
When we rush through the telling of the stories our communities have selected for regular retelling, when we reserve the repetition of stories solely for the education of children, and when we consistently favor first encounters with new stories over the experience of hearing old stories again, however, something is lost. Aside from losing layers of meaning that occur when we encounter the same stories at different points in our lives, we lose the opportunity to be changed by the stories over time.
Even stories we don’t like are instructive and have layers of meaning that reveal new things to us when we tolerate them long enough to sit with or wrestle them. We sometimes repeat stories because wrestling with them is necessary or right.
Some of the stories my family tells about my mother-in-law are ridiculous and silly, some are treasured for their sweetness, some are powerful and poignant, and a few are painful and upsetting. We will pass a variety of them down to younger generations.
We tell these stories again and again as if they will reveal something about who we are, as a family, as much as who my mother-in-law was during her life. Over time, such stories begin to affirm in us those qualities and beliefs that they highlight, reinforcing the presence of these qualities and beliefs in our lives. They offer a sense of connection that slowly transforms our relationship with the family.
As natural as it is to retell old stories, most of us do it. Maybe the question isn’t, “why keep repeating the same old stories,” but “which stories are worthy of sitting with or wrestling, and which stories deserve to be known by heart?” Religious communities have the benefit of hundreds or thousands of years of discernment about the retelling of old stories. How might we remain open-hearted toward what these special stories have to offer us?