Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us

By Mark Yaconelli. Broadleaf Books, 2022. 206 pages. $24.99/hardcover; $22.99/eBook.

For my last Friends Journal book review, of Within Our Grasp by Sharman Apt Russell, I began with a quote from the author: “The power of a story can change the world.” And I ended the review with two questions of my own: “How many more stories are needed to power that change? And who listens?”

I’ve now been immersed in Mark Yaconelli’s discussion of “how stories can save us.” His theme is illustrated through many narratives, including much of the author’s own story. There are stories about stories, reported first-person narratives, and descriptions of storytelling models. The three “Interludes” are complete short stories.

“Shoes” is a multilayered story within the frame of a story-sharing fundraiser for a local health center. Angela, a young museum intern, speaks about the precious collection of artifacts “donated to the museum by families who suffered the Holocaust.” She tells how she was permitted to touch a wedding dress, and reports its story as told to her by a colleague. Through attentively listening, looking, and touching, she is led into silence to contemplate “the newfound hopes of so many young lovers. She tried to feel the weight of those lives—the heartache, the hope, the longing.” Angela confesses that she had not been able later to resist breaking museum rules by touching “one tiny pair of leather baby shoes.” Thus, Angela’s story—enfolded in a wedding dress, wrapped in a story-sharing session, and covered in a book—reaches me across decades and an ocean to become part of my own story because I have been listening. I have been touched by those shoes.

Yaconelli is founder and director of the Hearth, a peripatetic nonprofit that develops storytelling gatherings for “real stories by regular folks.” He describes the reason for these gatherings:

The Hearth is an evening when we practice community. . . . Some of us practice by setting up chairs. Some by baking goods. Some by sharing stories. Some by performing music. Some by giving money to the local nonprofit. This is not a performance. We are not here to watch a show. We are here to explore what it means to be human. We are here to listen for ways we are being asked to grow, to act, to serve. We are here because we need one another.

Just as the narratives encourage attentive listening, reading is invited by the text: clear contents list, layout, fonts, point sizes, and set within generous space. Chapters are divided into short sections that enable readers to linger in a section or story. There are no benefits in hurrying or prizes for finishing early.

This is a book to return to, one story at a time. It is a book about sharing, which in itself demonstrates many experiences of offering and receiving. And it is a book to share with companions, for the reader is invited into many places, often unexpected, challenging, or dark: places “in a world that is alive and generous and in need of care.” It is a world where Yaconelli finds care and generosity and life.

Reading these stories has led to much discussion with my husband. Realizing that many of my self-narratives can be characterized as “if only” or “I wish I had . . .” I’m trying to be more present-based and positive. When two people we hadn’t met before came to tea on consecutive days, one “performed” a stream of self-regarding episodes. After two hours, we had shared nothing and felt no contact. The other invited us into her life with many stories, interspersed with questions about us and space to respond to her narratives. We were exploring what it means to be human, and immediately became friends.

The narratives embedded in Yaconelli’s clear commentary lead back to my questions. “How many more stories are needed to power that change?” The answer is, surely, that there can never be enough, for there is always need for change. “And who listens?” In my experience as a social worker, listening is rarer and far more difficult than telling. Yaconelli’s narratives demonstrate the importance of attentive hearing. But still I ask: “Who is listening?”

Margaret Crompton (Britain Yearly Meeting) has developed ideas and practice in communicating with children in the context of social work/care. Her numerous publications include the Pendle Hill pamphlet Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Well-Being (2012). Recent publications include poems, short stories, and flash fiction. She writes and directs plays for a small drama group named Script in Hand.

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