Beauty in Storytelling

By Miss Leithart

Once upon a time... What comes to mind upon the uttering of those words in that order? Perhaps you think of childhood enchantment that sweeps your weary mind to a distant land in a far off time, past or future, where there lives a protagonist who will eventually overcome hardship. “And they lived happily ever after,” the story will end. Granted, this formula is more prevalent in children’s literature, for not all stories and novels end happily despite our protestations and verbal opposition. Nevertheless, we all love a good story, and humans have since the beginning of time. For instance, the Genesis Creation is written poetically with a beginning middle and end. God rests on the last day because he saw his creation was good. Thus, from the start, our knowledge of who we are in the universe was given to us in a story like fashion.

Though we undeniably find pleasure in listening to, reading, or watching stories, the question remains: why? Furthermore, what makes a good story? To begin, I found a secular perspective in an article from The Atlantic titled “ They Psychological Comforts of Storytelling.” From a scientific standpoint, humans remember stories 22 times better than hearing facts alone, the article highlights. Moreover, reading novels and learning about characters’ emotions and experiences helps improve our ability to empathize with others. Here we see two psychological benefits to immersing ourselves in stories: sparking the memory and engaging empathy.

In fourth grade, many of our lessons in various subjects involve stories that ignite student excitement and curiosity. For example, our entire writing curriculum revolves around Aesop’s fables. We read fables, memorize them, amplify and summarize, and write our own fables. By incorporating fables into our curriculum, students not only learn how to write a short piece that includes conflict and resolution, but they internalize morals that lead them to love what is good. Students will listen more attentively to a lesson on the danger of greediness ifthey hear of a dog who fell into a river because she envied the bigger bone in the water that was really her reflection. In addition to helping students love what is good and truthful, stories allow them to experience a time and a place outside of their own. In history, I often present the facts of a chapter as a story. For example, we were just learning about David Livingstone when I told them in great sensory detail about his adventures in Africa. Some students exclaimed, “I felt like I was there!” Bingo. But beyond keeping students attention for a history lesson, I want them to admire the courage and honesty of some of the great men and women of the past and desire to be like them. That is achievable through the art and beauty of storytelling.

Here are two contrasting accounts of David Livingstone, both truthful in essence. Which version brings you to his side?

David Livingston was a Scottish doctor and missionary to Africa.  While he was a student in medical school, he became acquainted with a missionary named Robert Moffat who had been living in Kuruman, a town in Africa 500 miles from the southern coast. His fascination grew, and he decidedly moved to Cape Town which was already a busy European city. Though a familiar setting, Cape Town was not where he wanted to stay. Curiosity led him to venture into the heart of Africa. He lived among the Africans, ate what they ate, slept where they slept, and was even attacked by a lion! His main goal in traveling to Africa was to end the slave trade, but his discovery of routes from the coast into the heart of the continent only perpetuated the transport of African men and women into slavery. Livingstone was certainly remembered for his courage and adventurousness that allowed him to travel through unexplored lands.

It was hot. He was parched. He wanted to press on along the Zambezi river, but six European men just joined the caravan, and they slowed his pace. They also wanted conversation, but he preferred silence unless he had something to say. This character trait did make him unpopular at times with his men, but he wasn’t wandering through Africa to amuse his comrades. No, his mission was much more divine. In a letter written on August 15, 1872, he wrote “No one can estimate the amount of God-pleasing good that will be done, if by Divine favour this awful slave trade, into the midst of which I have come, he abolished. This will be something to have lived for.” This man was David Livingstone, Scottish missionary to Africa. But back to the wandering. They had been trudging through foreign lands with its exotic rivers teeming with wildlife, some deadly, and its sun that seemed bigger than the one in Scotland’s sky. When they began to hear a faint roaring in the distance, not like that of a lion or wild beast, but a low and steady colliding. As they traveled along the river, the sound grew louder and louder! You’ll never guess what they discovered…

The fourth graders definitely enjoyed the second version and made a fuss when I left off in suspense. However, we discovered in the next lesson that that growing roar was the sound of Victoria Falls, which Livingstone named in honor of Queen Victoria. They’ll now remember this fact with vigor and confidence.

The greatest story is, of course, that of our salvation, how our God humbled himself, was born of a virgin, lived a life as a human, died on a cross, and rose from the dead all for undeserving sinners like us. The story of stories, so to speak, literally saves our souls. Therefore, we who are created in His image, unsurprisingly love stories. Let us therefore enrich our lives by opening our ears to the beauty in stories and ultimately look to the Gospel which is the ultimate story.