During my coming of age years, I developed some habits that continue to enrich my understanding of human behaviour, especially my own. One of these habits took hold and blossomed when I began my literature studies. Because I chose to become a literature teacher when I was younger, and because I continue to reference literature’s store of insights and deep wisdom in my coaching practice, my storytelling studies continue with no end in sight. In my early days as a literature teacher, I discovered the value of history, a subject I didn’t take to in high school or university, through great novelists’ narratives exploring war, greed, elitism, and the role ordinary people play in vital social evolution unfolding within a specific time and place. Reading these novels allowed me to knit together previously disconnected impressions I had of the world.
Thomas Hardy’s novels, for example, helped me to understand how early industrialization dehumanized its owners and labourers as it efficiently set about developing the extractive mechanization practices that have led to human alienation from the natural world, constant over-production, the delusion of growth without limits, and our current climate crises. Through Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novels I learned about the evils of totalitarianism and its black/white. right/wrong ideology supporting the supremacy of a state run by a so-called ‘strong man,’ ideology currently on the prowl in our own tumultuous times. Reading Doris Lessing’s work validated my experiences of women’s ‘less-than’ lives during one of history’s more recent patriarchal strangleholds. Toni Morrison’s novels allowed me to climb into the skin of disenfranchised men and women sentenced to a slave class created by white supremacists so cunning that its descendants continue to be disenfranchised and devalued by systems and practices embedded in what we believe to be democratic institutions. Perhaps most decorously of all, Jane Austen, introduced me to a time when girls and women were considered chattel and entirely without the legally and socially sanctioned rights and privileges of men, and further, were separated from the embodied freedoms and pleasures enjoyed by the male sex through constant physical, emotional, educational, and social indoctrination.
There are countless storytellers, the few I’ve mentioned reflecting the academic biases I experienced when I began my studies back in the sixties as well as my early feminist roots. Happily, vibrant storytelling continues to thrive in spite of formal education’s many narrow curricula. I am convinced this vibrant storytelling activity continues because, in its innumerable revelations, a well told story helps to increase our understanding of and compassion for all caught in the toils of the human condition. In these times, because of our violent political, racial, and cultural clashes, and because our Earth home is in peril from human beliefs and practices, we need literature’s ability to increase human understanding and compassion more than ever.