“God made man because He loves stories.” Elie Weisel (The preface to The Gates of the Forest)
Fans of the television show Boston Legal will recall William Shatner’s character Denny Crane. A colorful character whose egotism was gradually impeded by his loss of mental faculties and his incessant need to pursue women. In one scene he glibly comments that the reason for his interest in fostering new romances was “I want to tell my stories again to someone!” As the quote from
Elie Weisel so succinctly conveys, people love to share their favored narratives. The Jewish people have held fast to their narratives for millennia and this devotion has helped us in our survival and more than that our need to find life’s meaning.
Narratives and stories are powerful instruments that can persuade and foster change and at the same time sustain time honored values and traditions. Such is the favored exercise of companies, political parties, and religious institutions.
There is of course a downside to clinging to our narratives. How often our personal attachment to them can become stale and in fact deleterious to growth and change!
As a onetime prison chaplain, I encountered a most charming loan shark in the correctional facility. Once, with his guard down, he engaged in a personal revelry about his father who owned a candy store, what we now would call a convenience store. With his fists clenched and sharking, this inmate recalled how his father would generously let everyone and anyone buy products promising to pay for them eventually. Like Popeye the sailor’s Wimpy “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!” This 75-year-old loan shark told me how he would complain to his father, “Dad, they take advantage of you. Don’t let them steal from you!” Respond- ing to this tale he had told over and over again, I finally said; “I guess you became a loan shark so people would not do to you what they did to your dad whom you loved!” Hearing this, he fell back in his chair for he had never put those two pieces of his life together.
Sometimes, we cling to our narratives, framing out what we think must be applied to our current situations, old ways of relating to the teachers we admired, the organizations that served us well and to the rabbis we knew. But to paste one’s antique narrative to a current situation is to get stuck in a maddening repetitive loop. That is to say, repeating the same behavior over and over again and expecting a new result. One teacher commented on how mice are smarter than people. When mice amble toward one part of the maze that does not lead to the cheese they turn around. But when people knock on a door repeatedly that won’t open, they continue to pound on it proving that was the way to go. All of us do that, you, me and everyone. It is difficult to let go of what you once knew.
While I love narratives and stories, I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have all the answers to problems based on what they think they had known before. Such persons are danger- ous. It fails to build teamsmanship and a sense of shared involvement.
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz D.D.