When I moved to Ireland for graduate school in 2012, Pádraig Ó Tuama, a leader of the Corrymeela Community, was the first person I met. As he drove me into the city from the airport, he invited me to the monthly storytelling event he and Paul Doran ran known as Tenx9 (pronounced “ten by nine”), where nine people had ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives, based on a theme.
In the months I lived in Belfast, I attended every Tenx9, and when I returned to Nashville, I asked Pádraig and Paul if I could start a chapter back home. They agreed, and I ran the first event in September 2013, with another following every month since.
It didn’t take long before people began noticing how popular live storytelling events were becoming. Events like Tenx9 have popped up around town and around the country. People want storytelling, in part because of a longing for human connection. In this technological age, we’ve become increasingly digitally connected and simultaneously locally estranged. We’re losing much of the intimacy of intentional human connection, trading it for constant connectivity, availability, and impersonal comments sent to “someone” “somewhere else.”
At Tenx9, we try to cultivate human connection by being a place where ordinary people tell ordinary stories. Alongside silly and delightful stories, you can hear stories of pain and struggle. At the first Nashville event, the theme was “Journey,” and a friend of mine shared a story about an incredible biking adventure he took with his dad. The audience smiled and laughed and relaxed. The very next story was also about a father, but one quite different. The storyteller told of her turbulent relationship with her dad, of always wanting to feel loved by him. She told how that longing began to mask itself with anger. And then she shared about the day she got a call that her father had been found dead in his garage, car exhaust filling his vehicle, and a goodbye note left behind – for her.
An Irish proverb says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” We can give shelter to each other by telling stories of what it means to be human, and by listening generously. I’ve worked in prisons, in education, and in healthcare advocacy. In all these contexts, one of the clearest dilemmas facing people is the inability to listen to and empathize with others who see the world differently. We are quick to unfriend, unfollow, and police anyone who creates dissonance in our echo chambers; we’re like hawks, soaring over the landscape of social discourse to look for anything and anyone we need to swoop down and silence. We seem to be listening only for variations on anthems we already love or for the choruses of songs we hope to mute. Listening with patience, listening for the sake of learning, is becoming a lost art.
Stories against Fear
A friend who’s a neurobiologist once told me the brain automatically categorizes people into “similar and dissimilar.” The “similar” ones we trust quickly, the “dissimilar” ones we don’t. Our brains, for survival’s sake, feed this persistent paranoia that unless we are the same, we are in danger. Storytelling is one way we escape this thinking.
Storytelling is one way we escape from us-versus-them thinking.
In Northern Ireland, I met a remarkable English woman named Jo Berry. On October 12, 1984, Jo’s world exploded when her father, a British MP, was killed by an IRA bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England. Two months later, she serendipitously shared a taxi with a man from Belfast whose brother had been in the IRA before being killed by a British soldier. “We should have been enemies,” Jo told me, “but instead we spoke of a world where people didn’t kill each other.” She left knowing she needed to “bridge the divide … to try to understand those that killed” her father. During the next fifteen years, Jo told her story at conferences on forgiveness. She says this helped her heal – and, in hearing the stories of others, she even began to understand why someone might join the IRA.
In 1999, her life changed again when Patrick Magee, the man responsible for her father’s death, walked out of prison as part of the Good Friday Agreement. One year later, Jo’s friend arranged a meeting. When Patrick walked through the door, Jo shook his hand and thanked him for coming. During the next three hours, they talked alone. “I didn’t want to blame him,” she said to me. “I wanted him to open up. I needed to hear his story.” Initially, though, all she heard was “political justification.” Uninterested in hearing Patrick justify her father’s murder, she planned to end the meeting. But then Patrick said something different: “I don’t know what to say anymore. I don’t know who I am. Can I hear your rage? What can I do to help you?” The conversation had shifted, and Jo knew this wouldn’t be their only meeting.
As they parted ways, Patrick apologized “with great feeling” for killing her father. Jo told me Patrick was “disarmed” by her empathy; it changed him. When Jo arrived home, she felt disoriented. “I’ve just met the enemy,” she thought, “and I’ve seen his humanity.” Now what?
To date, Patrick and Jo have spoken together over a hundred times, all over the world. He is no longer just the IRA bomber who killed her father; he is also the friend who teaches her how to solve cryptic crossword puzzles on planes.
Dismantling our enemies requires at least three steps: proximity, curiosity, and humility. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more than we already do about the other’s story, and humble enough to wonder if perhaps we’ve been wrong about the other all along. If we can, like Jo, get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear that has controlled us for far too long.
Inhabit Another’s Story
Recently, I’ve begun working with Narrative 4, a nonprofit that runs empathy-building programs all over the world. The core methodology is a story exchange, where paired participants tell their partner a true story from their life. Their partner listens deeply to the story. Then, when the participants regroup, each person tells their partner’s story in first-person pronouns, as if that story happened to them. Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that the world is suffering from an “empathy gap.” Narrative 4 is trying to address this gap.
In early September, I collaborated with a local nonprofit to bring together a group of twelve Christians, Muslims, and Jews to participate in such a story exchange. Gathering in the home of a Palestinian Christian, I watched a white Christian woman inhabit the story of a brown Muslim woman. I watched a Jewish man give his story to a Muslim man to tell. Afterward, each of the twelve expressed surprise at how they had learned to connect and empathize with each other. One woman said she felt freer, as well: hearing someone else tell her story lifted the burden of carrying it alone. At the end of our time together, another participant said, “This was possibly the closest experience of encountering the divine in the world that I’ve ever had.”
These are gifts we can give each other when we listen well. When we soak ourselves in the story of another person enough to retell it, we begin to subvert the all-too-common pattern of listening to others only to craft our next retort. We start to see each other as humans rather than simply ideological positions to be out-argued.
Cracks of Hope
While practicing empathetic storytelling and listening can be difficult with a friend, doing so with your enemy is even harder. During recent storytelling projects in Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, I interviewed dozens of people who have done just that. One of the people I met was Bassam Aramin.
Bassam is a middle-aged Palestinian man who, at age seventeen, was sentenced to seven years in Israeli prison after a group of his friends threw grenades at Israeli soldiers. (No one was injured.) While in prison, one of Bassam’s Israeli jailers began conversations with him, challenging him on the story Bassam believed about his history, politics, and people. As the jailer and Bassam each told his understanding of the conflicted story of Israelis and Palestinians, Bassam hoped to convince the man to his way of thinking; I suspect the jailer hoped for the opposite. After a while, the jailer started bringing Bassam coffee; – an attempt to provide some dignity and a sign of growing respect, or at least less disdain.
One October day, around a hundred Israeli soldiers entered the prison as part of a military exercise, bringing each Palestinian out of his cell to be beaten in a gauntlet formation. When they seized Bassam, he resisted and was taken into a side room for a more severe beating. As the soldiers struck him over and over, another person entered and threw his body over Bassam’s to protect him. It was his jailer.
If we can get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear.
Some years later, after Bassam was free, he began meeting with former soldiers to exchange stories and hear different points of view, meetings that eventually led to the creation of Combatants for Peace. “I started to learn the other side,” he told me. “Then I began to see the soldiers in the checkpoints not as targets. For the first time, I started to look at their faces.… The change starts in yourself. Rumi said, ‘Yesterday I was clever, so I started to change the world. Today I am wise, so I start to change myself.’”
In 2007, an Israeli soldier shot and killed Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, as she came home from school. Bassam’s response to his daughter’s killing was remarkable: he went to graduate school to study the Holocaust, hoping to better understand the history of his Jewish neighbors. Today Bassam is a spokesperson for Parents Circle–Families Forum, an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members in the conflict.
These are the kinds of stories that can save us from succumbing to fear of the other. They subvert the narrative of the dangerous difference between “us” and “them.” Rami Elhanan, the Israeli leader of the Parents Circle–Families Forum, whose fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, once said to me, “We bang our heads against this very high wall of hatred and fear that divides these two nations. And we put cracks in it, cracks of hope.”
Campfire photographs by Jason Bennett