In this century, and moment, of mania, tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be time,
But you must not speak its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
On my desk sits a stack of books.
It’s been there for the better part of a year, growing larger each month. First it was merely a small manageable pile; now it’s a precarious Leaning Tower of Pisa, threatening to collapse at any minute.
Now and then I stop in front of it, pick up a book (or two), thumb through it, perhaps opening it to a page and letting the words rise up to meet me.
But almost as soon as I’ve opened the book, it quickly finds a way back to its spot on the pile.
This puzzles me. Here I am, a helping professional. It makes sense that I have a stack of books that promise insight, life improvement, self discovery, professional enrichment, and personal development.
So why don’t I read them?
Why do I feel a creeping apathy each time I pass these books?
I’ve been pondering these questions for a couple of months now, and a few things have occurred to me along the way.
The most obvious is that there’s not much that’s new. Many self-help authors have been around the block a few times; they have a track record, and lots of them have ascended to celebrity status. That’s often what gets a book published these days. But I’ve noticed the theme of the first book can be strangely similar to the second, or fifth. It’s like they’ve been fitted with fancy new dresses, and sent to the ball all over again for another coming out party.
I do realize that we need to read and hear things over and over, though. We human beings usually don’t get it the first time.
But the redundancy can be awfully dull.
Maybe that’s because the writing shows up looking more like advice than insight. Sometimes I get the feeling that self-help is talking at me rather than to me. A bequeathing of knowledge from a person who has arrived, hinting that they have their act together, and if I’m very good, (and follow the prescribed remedy), I can get my act together too.
I know. You might be thinking, “I WANT to get my act together! I WANT the advice!”
But do you really? Isn’t advice like a prescription? A one-size-fits-all for what ails you? And when you think about it, are you really sick? I don’t think so. I think most of us are just fine.
Maybe we’re just looking for something quite different.
Maybe what we’re yearning for is not so much the quick fix of a medicine, but rather the gradual inspiration of a muse. Which is exactly what the wisest teachers have been doing for generations, by speaking the language of story.
They understand that story allows us to take what we need, what is particular to us. Story softens us up, giving us air to breathe below the surface. Guiding us to our own inspiration. Surely lighting the way, but letting us carve out the path on our own. Helping us get comfortable with paradox, by reminding us that the more we know, the more we don’t know.
Telling me a story does one more amazing thing: it creates a relationship between us.
It’s how I know that you’re not just talking at me, but actually listening to me. Because through story, we connect. It’s a marvel of two-way communication, even if I’m not in the room with you.
And that’s the missing link for me in much self-help: story and wisdom and connection.
No wonder I’ve lately looked to art, poetry, music, and fiction for instruction on how to live life.
In fact, I’m currently re-reading Jane Austen. Although it may seem like a huge leap to consider Pride and Prejudice a primer on personal development, there is abundant wisdom to be found there.
It’s a veritable compendium of how to’s:
How to stay true to yourself in the face of adversity. How to be independent and unique when others expect you to conform. How to be healthy and vibrant by walking vigorously each day. How to find humor and joy in life. How to refrain from making snap judgments about other people. How to forgive yourself when you make mistakes. How to advocate for people and ideas you most care about. How to get excited at the prospect of dancing.
All that from a book that was written in 1813. Who knew?
So I’ll stick with Jane for the time being.
But about that stack of books on my desk? I’m sure I’ll get to it one day. Although if I could, right now, I would appeal to those who wrote them:
Please, tell me a story.
Tell me what it means to you to be real.
Tell me as much about your doubts as your certainties.
Tell me how your world has been rocked by love and fear.
Tell me of both delights and disturbances.
Tell me that we’re in this together.
Tell me a story.