“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” — Harold Goddard
I recently heard Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” relate a story from his time at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. He described a meeting with his theater professor, Stephen Weeks, Ph.D.
In recalling the brief encounter, he quoted Weeks: “Peter, sometimes I think the best way to live your life is to choose the experience that will have the most anecdotal value.” Sagal went on to explain that, for him and his friends, this quote became the law of anecdotal value. Quoting Sagal, “I have tried to live my life by that law. I try to do things that will turn into a cool story later.”
While I cannot say that my choices in life have been directed as such, I can say I have managed to stumble into some situations that have provided some quite good stories. More importantly, I have met many incredible people with exceptional stories of their own. It is those stories, more than anything else, that feed my desire to write this column.
Poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” I believe she was right. Our family stories give us a sense of our history and our place. Our personal stories give our lives definition and meaning. Others’ stories connect us to a world beyond our own. Without them we are lost.
The great teachers in my life were also great storytellers. They knew how to connect their subject matter to concrete examples through the use of passionate and animated anecdotes. The same is true today — the best teachers know how to tell a story and tell it well.
One of the greatest teachers I know teaches French in a high school up the road. She is a Holocaust survivor. Her family was Jewish. She was taken in by a Belgium family who protected her from the Nazis. The family was Catholic, and she converted in order to honor them. She later became a Catholic nun. Fiery and single-minded she was and remains a force.
Her travels and ministry have taken her to Africa, across Europe and finally to California. Every day her mere presence tells a story, teaches and inspires. When she speaks, history pours out of her, faith fills the room and lives are changed.
We saw her at midnight Mass, and I was struck by the fact that my daughters know and love someone connected to a history far beyond their grasp. Her stories will live in them as well. Decades from now they will be recounting for their grandchildren the story of a humble nun who survived the Holocaust and became a living saint.
The holidays and, in particular, New Year’s Eve provide the perfect occasion to dust off some of the old family stories and solidify those recently created. I dare say it is the most important thing we can do. The new year offers hope for new beginnings and a fresh start. It also offers the occasion to remember where we came from and what brought us to this moment in our personal and collective history.
Robert McKee wrote, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
And so my new year’s wish is for all to have an abundance of the currency of human contact and a life filled with anecdotal value. Happy New Year.