Every night when I was a young child, I begged my father to tell me stories from his youth. He called them, “School of Hard Knocks,” and he had dozens of them. Even the ones I’d heard before I loved.
My father grew up in a teeny tiny town in south-central Kansas. Towns this size become microcosms. Everyone is a character, and every character is present. The class clown. The bully. The popular girl. The jock. The absent-minded teacher. The brain. And then there was my dad: a kind, middle-of-the-road, Kansas kid.
He told me about how the class clown could make a sound like a cricket that was so loud and realistic that his bottle-cap-bespectacled teacher was always alarmed and dumbfounded as to its origin. He’d look around the room and under chairs until he finally gave up and walked back to his desk shaking his head.
He told me about how the bully pushed him up against his locker every day until my grandpa told my dad to challenge him to a fight. The bully never showed up at their predetermined dueling spot—and he also never bullied my dad again.
He told me about the brain. She was a bean pole, a mousy-haired girl—who returned to school one autumn several inches taller. She’d spent the summer modeling in the big city, and as she walked into class that September, she blew everyone’s bobby socks off (including my dad’s).
I loved my dad’s stories because they were a glimpse into the past, yes. But also because they provided context for who my dad became. I knew him in the present but hearing stories of his past gave me a better understanding of him as a whole. He, like me, had often felt that he didn’t fit in. He’d felt scared. He knew puppy love. It filled in the gaps of the narrative.
In John McKnight’s and Peter Block’s book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, they explain why stories are so important to our identities.
A culture is built through the stories we tell and what we choose to talk about—our narrative.
A primary function of a family, neighborhood, or community is to create its story. Telling the story gives body to the collective.
Now I enjoy learning about my family tree. I’m curious not only where I came from, and where my parents came from, but also their grandparents, and their grandparents. I found a tape of my grandfather talking about his heritage. I learned that my great-grandparents came over from Prussia. But there’s also some Spanish mixed in there, which gave my grandpa his distinct black hair and fair skin. Hearing his voice again was like putting on a warm sweater. His stories fill in more gaps of the narrative.
By learning the stories that made up my past, I feel more confident about who I am in the present. The more gaps I fill in, the more I understand the narrative of my life.
Now I’m raising my own family. My older son asks to hear my stories. And we’re building our life in a neighborhood rich with other young families. We recently formed a neighborhood association to plan events like egg hunts, block parties, and the like. And as we all met, we began exchanging stories.
Communities become competent when people tell stories that link to their gifts.
Many of us are nerds. We bond over Star Trek references and deep cuts from offbeat Millennial music. Some of us are people of faith. Some of us are academics. Some of us are busy. Some of us are bored. Some of us can fix cars, or paint, or grow glorious gardens, and we’re learning that about each other. We all have different gifts, but we all share the same space; learning each other’s stories gives us context. Now we can write our narratives together.
A few weeks ago, my two sons and my husband were playing in the front yard. An elderly woman drove up in a boat of a car. She pulled right in front of our driveway, turned off the ignition, and gingerly climbed out of her car. My husband stopped what he was doing and curiously watched the woman as she carefully walked up our driveway and toward our house.
“I bought this house in 1966,” she stated, simply. “We paid $18,000 for it at 9% interest. We lived here with our two sons for six years and sold it for $24,000. I drive by sometimes, and I’ve seen your young family. I wanted to stop today.” Then she just stood there, looking at the house. “I bet one of those is your room,” she said to my older son, pointing to the two front windows.
He smiled. She was right. My husband told her that we, also, have two sons. She seemed to like that. She stayed for just a couple of minutes, but her story fills in more gaps.
Inviting stories is the single biggest community-building thing that we can do, especially when the stories we tell are stories of our capacities, what worked out. Since stories tell us what is important, speaking of our capacities establishes them as the foundation upon which we can build a future.
As we get to know our neighbors better and better, we tell more and more stories. We started with stories about ourselves, and now we can tell stories that involve each other. We’re learning about each other’s gifts and talents. We know who to call for what.
I see now that each of us is made up of stories, that when all tied together, provide the backdrop for who we’ve become. Fortunately, we’re not beholden to the stories from our past. We can constantly write our own narratives, which can bend and widen as we learn and grow. Now, in the present, I help create the stories of our community with my children and my neighbor’s children.
The stories about our gifts, about how our kindness, our generosity, our trust, our forgiveness define us and give our life meaning—this is where an authentic sense of identity comes from….
The stories we tell may not define us, but they certainly teach us. And by sharing our stories, we build trust. And we remember what we’ve learned along the way.
(Excerpts from The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, by John McKnight and Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012.)