Don’t Tell Me a Story

Unless you also share facts

I love stories. So, probably, do you. Whether Biblical, mythological, fictional, or true, stories resonate in the human soul. You might be able to force students of history to memorize dates and place names, but stories of battles, hardships and victories lead to inspiration.

The problem, of course, is that anecdotes that tug at our heartstrings can lure us into a world of falsehood and even evil. Policies promulgated by a persuasive and talented raconteur may cause endless suffering, while justice delivered via the entertaining oratorical skills of a charismatic lawyer may actually be justice withheld.

Ronald Reagan was a great story-teller. In his State of the Union speech of 1982, he departed from the traditional format of the presentation, and introduced his guest, Lenny Skutnik, to America. A few weeks earlier, Mr. Skutnik jumped into the Potomac and pulled a woman to safety after a plane crashed into a bridge over that body of water. President Reagan lauded this young man saying that he represented, “the spirit of American heroism at its finest.” It was an uplifting and emotional moment; it was also great theater.

Since that time, presidents of both parties have utilized this technique of inviting and highlighting Americans who represent their beliefs. It is still sometimes uplifting but increasingly contentious. Personally, I do consider Rush Limbaugh to be an American hero. However, while no one would have opposed applauding Lenny Skutnik, I can understand congressional Democrats not appreciating being put on the spot during President Trump’s State of the Union validation of Mr. Limbaugh’s work. Interestingly, while President Obama’s State of the Union guests included Jim Obergefell, the man at the center of the Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage, he did not point him out, sparing members of his own party as well as Republicans the need to choose whether to stand and applaud.

While stories are wonderful and emotionally compelling, they are not necessarily factual and even less often, representative. The musical Annie, like its comic-book preceder, as well as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, presents one side of the story of orphanages. Boys Town, starring Bing Crosby, presents another side. An evocative piece by Richard B. McKenzie in the December 22, 2021, Wall Street Journal, relating his fond memories of Christmases in a North Carolina orphanage in the 1950s, likewise contradicts the cruel orphanage stereotype. So do stories of Milton Hershey’s (yes, the Hershey of chocolate fame) orphanages and tales I heard from a friend of mine who grew up in a Jewish orphans’ home.

We validate our humanity when we feel empathy and allow ourselves to be moved by stories rather than only by parsing and analyzing data. We also succumb to the human failing of acting precipitously on those feelings and responding according to what makes us feel good rather than to what actually helps those for whom we are weeping. Today, we have fewer horrible orphanages, but we have an expanded foster system with its own horrible stories. Rather than applauding and replicating successful systems while closing down seriously flawed ones, we made ourselves feel righteous without actually protecting a vulnerable population.

We all love stories, especially children. Running a successful society requires grown-ups who know what stories to suspect, what questions to ask, and what other paths to follow as we steer our lives and those of others.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on this Susan’s Musing article.
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