Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Monsters Know about Life Stories

By: non-fiction author Christine Jeske

When my daughter was two years old, she went through a season of cutting teeth that was more miserable than anything we had yet experienced as parents. Some days she would begin crying in the middle of a meal and not stop for an hour. We tried everything—pain reliever, rocking, singing, even leaving her alone to “cry it out.” But the little creature seemed incapable of calming her own sobbing.

Finally one day I stumbled upon something that worked. We had just returned the famous children’s storybook Where the Wild Things Are to the library, and in between sobs, she requested to read it. Knowing her crying would hit new decibels when I told her we no longer had the book, I scooped her into my arms, sat down in our rocking chair, and began telling the story, embellished with enough details to last until her body finally forgot it’s grief.

In the following days I told her more stories, until they became a family habit. Sometimes we told fairy tales, sometimes true stories from our lives. Her favorite were the stories she challenged me to make up on the fly. Some she begged for again and again, like the story of the girl who built a tree house for her animal friends. Others became epics that continued for weeks, like the story of our family on a mystical journey through Silly Putty forests and Pillow Mountains in search of a backpack stolen by a witch who later became our friend. As the stories unfolded, they surprised even me. I found ways to work in life lessons, and many characters lived out our own struggles and dreams.

This was the first time I had made up stories since fifth grade, and I had forgotten how therapeutic the process was. Telling true stories was nothing new though. I had chosen English as a college major in part because there was nothing I enjoyed more than soaking up stories and mulling over their meanings.

Later in South Africa, aiming for the heart of people’s life stories in conversation became a way of life. Not only did the stories I heard people tell of their lives inform my work, they grew into a book of stories (Into the Mud: Inspiration for Everyday Activists) through which God can challenge people serving anywhere in the world.

I am convinced that there is no boring person, although I have interviewed quite a few people who start their responses with insistence that they are, in fact, boring. They are wrong. I am not bored by their stories, and God is definitely not bored by their stories.

A good story does not just describe another person’s life as a passing phenomenon; it forces us to crawl into the minds of people completely unlike ourselves. In the introduction to his classic book of Zulu stories, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa explains that part of his reason for writing these stories is to build peace across cultures: "There can be no real understanding between [races] so long as neither has a clear picture of the other: what it really things, believes in, hopes for, and why… Only by being presented with a full, clear and unvarnished picture of the African—seen from his worst as well as his best side—can the White man hope to avoid repeating the incredible mistakes he made in the past."

The most significant and the most challenging lessons of life, I believe, deserve stories. History has shown that we are tragically prone to damage and destroy people we do not understand. People of other cultures deserve to be understood through more than graphs or comparisons to ourselves, and there is not better way than through watching their own lives, and hearing them tell about those lives.

Christine's love of stories inspired her to compile a written collection of true life stories of people she met while living in South Africa.  Into The Mud takes readers behind the headlines, into real stories of real people living neck-deep in some of Africa’s most difficult issues — but with hands, minds, and hearts rooted in God’s kingdom. Each of its interwoven stories and related discussion questions addresses a broader issue of missions and development, including: evangelism, literacy and education, microfinance, health services, urbanization and refugee assistance, and more. Reflection questions at the end of each chapter help readers to apply lessons from the chapters to their own ministry contexts.

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