The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


June 27, 2023

Ship of Fools

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A single line from Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow” is a picture of my neighborhood where I grew up. “In Port William only strangers, preachers and traveling salesmen ever went to anybody’s front door.” For us, it was the often left open side door leading into the kitchen – the heart of the house – that was the place we went in and came out. People coming to the front door were those we did not know but people coming to the side were friends, neighbors and family. The side door was for people we trusted.

I’ve been turning that over in my mind this week while studying the power of stories. The best ones come through the side door – not sneaking in the back or banging on the front door. And there’s no need for an invitation or permission. Our brains love them and, according to neuroscience, prefer them over any other kind of information. In “Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative,” Dr. Paul Zak traces the neurochemistry of how stories literally build trust by generating the chemical oxytocin. There is something about compelling stories that not only lights up receptors in our brains but our minds, when stimulated by oxytocin, send a signal that good narratives (rather than hard facts) tilt us toward trusting the people who tell them. Also, raised levels of oxytocin create empathy, which makes us lean toward helping people in tangible ways. In fact, experiments have proven that people listening to stories of others in need will donate more than people hearing only the facts. Facts inform but stories engage. Many have asked why the news of five people lost in the tragic implosion of the submersible Titan launched massive rescue efforts and captured our attention more than the loss of hundreds of Pakistani refugees drowned at the same time. The larger facts of the refugees should have been the story but it wasn’t. The story was about five tourists. The refugees banged loudly with facts on the front door while the story of the trapped tourists came in the open side door.

There is clearly a strong tie among stories, trust and the desire to help. The “side door” of our brain is a powerful but also dangerous opportunity for the art of storytelling. Not all are to be trusted. Not all stories are the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

A Single Story

That is why I was so taken with the TED talk by novelist Chimamande Adichie, “The Danger of A Single Story.” When Chimamande came to the United States from Nigeria, it was plain that her first roommate had been raised on a single story about the continent of Africa:

She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. What struck me was this: She felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a human connection as equals…stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can repair that broken dignity.

Where do our modern stories of other people and cultures originate? For many of us they come from charities telling us of the great needs of the people where they serve. They originate from sources whose consistent message repeats what is lacking in their world. We are moved by the images of starving children and struggling families. They are reported in ways that only reinforce our tendency to oversimplify and create a single story of whole continents composed of hundreds of cultures and millions of people. We are not often told stories of business success, educational achievement, job creation, artists and engineers. Instead, we hear a single tale told many times over until that lone story showing a people as one thing, as only one thing, is what they become. They are imaginary people. A ship of fools. 

Instead of settling for the now generic images of an overcrowded fishing boat, a starving population or a whole continent at risk we need to push past the coverage that defaults to carefully crafted as well as badly reported stereotypes. We need to work hard at getting the bigger story. We need multiple and different perspectives and, most of all, more than a single story told over and over again.

NOTE: As I did last year, I am taking a break until after The Gathering conference in September so this will be the last blog until then.

Art by Laurence Blanchard

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