Human mind is fertile soil for lesson of a story
Most of the spiritual teachers of all our various religious heritages were poets or storytellers -- at least, that is the form in which so much of their teaching was preserved. Story is a powerful tool, able to catch complex ideas in memorable form. A story can often sneak in under the radar, as it were, to influence our perceptions and responses.
The human brain turns its every experience into story. We impose the structure of story even upon our personal memories -- ask any trial attorney! Even if you were an eyewitness, once you tell the story or hear it a few times, you begin to remember the story, not the experience.
We cannot NOT respond to story. Story is the quick and direct way into human consciousness. Our responses to story are never passive. Our responses set off associations in our minds which, in turn, set off a biochemical cascade of emotions, all of which we incorporate into the story. They shape the memory and the retelling.
In responding to story, we identify with roles: "This is how friends, mates, allies and enemies behave." However accurate they might or might not be, when we are caught up in the story, they feel true.
We empathize and identify with characters in the story. In the hands of a good storyteller, the cascade of emotions can be as physiologically real as if the characters were there before us or were us.
Story lies at the heart of spiritual teaching because as you hear it, you do it; you rehearse internally the deep action of the story. You might reflect on and think critically about instructions or ideas, and accept or reject them. But story involves you at much deeper levels and persuades without ever having to argue.
Jesus' parables call for a response, not a rational or even moral analysis. The late arrivers to the field get paid as much as those who worked all day? No, no, not fair. Ah, I see. It is the commitment, not the reward. The response becomes a part of the telling of story.
"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." The advice of an ancient Zen master directed the seeker to look within, not seek spiritual direction from an expert. Ah, yes. The only Buddha on the road is me.
Story can help the hearer receive criticism nondefensively that they would never hear by rational discourse.
Story can engender leaps of imagination of which the hearer did not know they were capable, or see alternatives that escape the "Why don't you? Yes, but" trap of advice-giving.
A story can invoke cognitive dissonance, as when the prophet Nathan tells King David a story that results in David standing in judgment of his own inappropriate behavior.
So involved do we become with the story that it can, in a sense, re-boot awareness. It is a powerful tool -- and it is morally neutral.
One of the ways we acquire culture is through the culture's stories. The stories we encounter, and our responses to them, tell us who we are. Because of this involving response, story can reinforce cultural particulars and biases or challenge them.
Our modern media have largely taken over the role of storyteller in our culture. Who is telling your children the stories that tell them who they are, that challenge and engage them to become more than they otherwise might be? Add in jokes, gossip, the win-lose of sport role-modeling, and the clever commercials that inundate us. These, too, are story.
"Talk story" is no idle pastime. It might be the most important thing we do together.
The Rev. Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.