Becoming the World is a dynamic storytelling workbook for facilitators working with youth today. Seven traditional tales adapted from seven diverse cultures are accompanied by activities that open conversations and strengthen creativity. The premise of the book is that each individual has within him or herself the inherent seeds of goodness, compassion, resilience and wisdom that can be activated through storytelling.
There are nine chapters in all. The first encourages children to know their own story and begin where they are. The last invites them to see themselves as global citizens and stewards of the earth. In the middle are seven traditional tales from around the world. The activities, writing exercises, arts projects and story making ideas provide you with tools to help children find outer solutions based on internal discoveries. You will also find tips on becoming a storyteller.
The process of storytelling/listening gathers the mind and hearts of children into a living experience that provides immediate delight and profound effect, as well as developing long-term potential for learning about oneself and one’s world. Each chapter draws on the last, and reinforces a continuous flowering of inner capacities that give young people access to dignity, hope and meaning. Our children are in great need of opportunities and imaginative challenges that reach to the roots of their feeling, thinking and being.
When someone listens to story that is narrated directly to them, they recreate the tale within their own minds. Each tale is thus a journey in which the listener becomes the landscape, the characters, the cause and effect, the scenic designer and all the vibrant forces of the natural world. This enables children to reflect on all aspects of the world and their humanity – good and evil, action and inaction. Truly immersed in a story, children become the characters and their relationship to one another, and undergo the story’s dilemmas through a visceral and symbolic enactment. In this way, stories provide a safe haven for children to examine their own beliefs, assumptions and actions. It is critical to recognize that this experience of themselves and the world results from actually participating in the creation of the story as they listen, and not from a preconceived notion of what we as adults would like our children to know.
In Romania, I worked with Roma (gypsy) women and children who knew habitual hopelessness and poverty intimately. When I first met with them, the storytelling cheered them up. They found that they still had the ability to be creative that they had forgotten. Together, slowly, making stories and listening to tales, we tested out how it would feel to imagine a different ending, more positive than the ones they had had before. This process took place over several months. It required time to establish trust between myself and them, and trust in their own capacities. Ultimately, each person was able to imagine alternative endings to their stories, and speak about manifesting positive changes in their lives and their community. This shift provided support that enabled them to make internal and external changes in their lives.
In New York City schools I experienced the same progression from lack of confidence and apathy, to feeling empowered and excited about learning, and living. Becoming the World seeks to stimulate learning from inside the child, at the root of the mind and the heart, where actual transformation occurs. Genuine storytelling is needed today to renew our youth’s sense of interest in the world, and joy in experiencing compassion and tolerance.
Recent world events have exposed existing levels of fear and stress, confusion and passivity in many of our children. Dreaming wide awake in the reciprocity of unfolding stories, our youth can enjoy feeling they are truly part of a large story – a world story – and not isolated individuals whose future rests on gaining more security, or economic and social power. As globalization brings the world into our living rooms, it is also giving birth to nationalism and the loss of cultures, languages and traditions. The activities we have presented are an antidote. With them, we can reinvigorate ourselves with our own inherent wealth of spirit and peace of mind.
There is a growing realization that with the weakening of the structures of community and traditions, we need to rattune ourselves with some of the pathways of learning and sharing developed by other cultures over millennia. Storytelling can render ourselves and our children as bi-cultural citizens: fully present and responsible in the contemporary world in whatever culture they are living in, while tasting the essential qualities of other cultures at the same time. Discovering the riches of other ways of being helps children to enjoy the diversity of the world, and make better sense of life itself.
What we so often forget, carried away by the passion of learned opinions and fears, is that regardless of trained ideas, belief systems, upbringing, gender, conditions of life, economic status, color of one’s skin, language, perspectives and way of dressing, we are all simply human beings attempting to find release from suffering and a way of being together with living conditions that provide safety, necessities, love and a sense of the sacred. Storytelling points us in the right direction. There is a Turkish saying, “A small key opens a big door.” We hope each story experience and activity will serve as a small key to open the vast chambers of the heart, wherein one can discover oneself as big as the world.
Why Stories Work
Storytelling is powerful because of the process of responsive engagement engendered by the relationship between storyteller and listener. Drawn out of self consciousness into the unfolding narrative, held by the voice and intention of the teller, the listener spontaneously joins body and mind, as they imagine the entire story within themselves. A deep abiding sense of trust develops between participants and the teller. The result of this involvement is a feeling of attention and calm during the ongoing event. Being able to focus and rest the mind promotes the unexplainable benefit of feeling wonder with no fear, and tirelessness that refreshes the mind.
The listener vicariously, personally, feels the dynamics of cause and effect, of being the evil doer and the heroine, of confronting danger and obstacles, and overcoming challenges to become the best of themselves. Anger, rage, happiness, gentleness, fierceness, laziness, heroism, fear, love, destruction, disappointment, exuberance are confronted without shame or having to escape or be afraid of losing oneself. Presence is continuous. Everyone in the storied event may feel fear, but with the attention of the storyteller (who is not lost in the tale) these emotions flourish in safe containment. The fact that the narrator is telling a story he or she knows or has told before (the teller knows the end of the tale from the start) and survived, catapults the listener into a journey with great abandon, and zeal, to find out what is going to happen next. The stories get us to the root causes of problems, and are practice for dealing with issues and dilemmas of every sort. The tales provide a platform for immediate interventions, and at the same time guide youth through subtle stages of emotional development.
We as storytellers have learned to honor the unexpected and unique ways each person participates in a story. As facilitators, we encourage you to strive for deep responsiveness, without bias, that is gentle and poignant. Your role is to create a space in which youth can respond openly and begin to speak about their issues and fears. Probing for literal and prepackaged answers to questions is a forced fit. It is an act of aggression that does not fortify the inner capacities of our children. You can’t pry anyone out of the place where they have been safely and habitually feeling and thinking, to respond as someone would like them to respond.
On the other hand, questions when asked with no expectation of particular answers but with a spirit of open ears can expand children’s sense of meaning and confidence in communication. Let every answer be heard, regardless of whether you approve or agree with it. Deep listening leaves children with interest in reflection and the power to hear others as well. This leads to responsibility organically. Having become both sides of a story, being both the witch and the girl she tricks, the snake and the king gives children the potential for transformation. Herein is born the facility to change one’s life.
The world is changing all the time. Cultures, traditions, belief systems, weather, industry, economics, migrations, wars, longings, genders, likes and dislikes, crisis and peace have formed our world and the world of our ancestors. At the same time, the human need to find meaning, connection, happiness, solutions to problems, and hope remains the same. Storytelling has existed in every culture and time in history. Although many of the images and ideas may be foreign, we are heirs to all the stories of the world.
Cultures and stories are a diverse tapestry of history and prehistory. Colorful and different, the warp and woof of their weave is astonishing. The variety of shapes of animals and seashells, the colors of our skin, our voices and the unique quality of each face or personality is nothing short of miraculous. However, there is also a pattern of similarity and underlying meaning that is timeless and unchanging, and can not be explained. It is our natural right to delight in our differences, and wonder about the mystery of our sameness.
One way to really know the spirit of another culture is to hear their stories. Literally, to become their stories as you listen is the first step in true multicultural education. The emphasis on the process of what happens while one is listening is what makes storytelling more powerful than a mere recitation or moral lesson. In this case, it is a chance to directly access an understanding of differences, cause and effect, and receive the gift of beautiful language and image. The integration of body, mind and heart that occurs in the listening is the pillar of support for developing the ability to act without reaction, to reflect, to tolerate differences, and to risk exploring a new experience.
We are all in need of trusting our inner resources that we have as human beings. It is time to reactivate our creativity and renew an abiding recognition of wonder in what is sacred or mysterious that brings us together. The everyday world is abounding with magic. The sheer fact that the sun rises in the morning, that spring follows winter, and that we are born and live and die, encourages us to see beyond our own situation.
The story is like a round hole cut in the ice revealing a universe of water as vast as sky, or a window thrown open that shows us another world we have never imagined. Sometimes the sheer relief of being removed from one’s circumstances, or preoccupations, for just a minute, allows the body and mind to relax to refresh itself. This can make it possible to endure the next event, or suddenly be struck by new insight or a bigger view.
The intention of this workbook is for you to infuse our youth with a sense of participation in their own lives, each other and the ceaselessly unfolding story of the universe we share. Dreaming of the future allows each child to imagine something for themselves, while becoming stewards for the planet. I hope our children can be nourished by an unending sense of possibility, and excitement about the adventure of their lives into adulthood. Such a journey passes on precious knowledge: that each person has a unique contribution to make to our world.
Just as people,
not knowing that a treasure is hidden in the field,
pass over it every day without ever finding it,
so do these creatures live day after day
without ever finding the self within their heart.
— Chandogya Upanishad 8.3.2
© 2003 Laura Simms