The Companionship of Stories

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
-Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Our family has a happy tradition of reading books aloud to one another. This summer's family book was To Kill a Mockingbird. I was a little unsure if our youngest child (age 9) would be ready to hear everything discussed during the trial scene. Fortunately, our standard approach of simply responding to questions worked well in this situation. As unfamiliar words popped up in reference to the attack on Mayella Ewell, the youngest asked us to define the terms, which we did, in a matter-of-fact tone. We would wait for follow-up questions and respond frankly, until there were no more questions. Then we would keep reading.

It takes a long time to get through a book this way (TKAM took three months), but the family time is invaluable. Though all five children and both parents have a dizzying number of appointments and responsibilities, the whole family works hard to find time to be together for reading time; we are eager to encounter the story with one another.

Sharing stories is a deeply human experience. It seems human beings have always had an insatiable appetite for hearing about heroes & villains, places near & far, exploits fantastic & practical. . . . We love stories! When Jesus Christ wanted to explain the profound mystery of the Kingdom of God, he adopted the role of a storyteller. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32).

Stories themselves are a kind of mustard seed. They are little slices of life, easy to hang on to. In our minds and our hearts, we hold these narratives, often recollecting them at strange moments, unbidden. This summer, for example, I went grocery shopping. In the produce section, I spotted collard greens, which reminded me of Jem, Scout, and Dill sneaking through the Radley garden one night. Instantly, my imagination was back in the narrative, taking me to that hot, tense evening in Maycomb County and making me consider once again how childish curiosity, untempered by empathy, can lead to cruel dares. Without Harper Lee's story in my imagination, those collard greens would have remained plain, old collard greens. (Don't you think collard greens need as much help as they can get?) Because of the characters in Lee's story, however, my chance encounter with leafy vegetables became a rich experience, a meaningful encounter with the human condition. Mustard seed, meet tree.

Jesus' stories, his parables, help keep the kingdom of heaven in our minds and hearts. If we ask for it, God can give us the gift of recollection. More and more we can find ourselves considering the mundane things right in front of us in terms of their place in the universe.

For children, fairy tales and other stories unlock the world of the moral imagination. Bit by bit, character by character, children begin to extrapolate the stories they hear, applying lessons to their own daily lives. The witch who keeps Rapunzel locked in a tower may be driven by complex motives, but sensitive children will gradually see how selfish it is of her to keep Rapunzel all for herself. This story might come to mind when a child faces the excruciating situation of having to share. Life isn't easy, even at a tender young age; we need companions to encourage us to make good choices. Stories have always been a favorite companion of mine. How about you?