My 1960s childhood was elevated by stories – those told by my father in the cocoon of our Pennsylvania home and the story of the Civil Rights Movement taking place outside. Watching the nightly news coverage of the movement, I remember feeling transported from the living room sofa to the middle of movement in Alabama. The stories my father told brought to life generations past, made me dream about the future and feel loved in the present. From the stories, outside and inside, I formed the seed of a belief: stories have the power to transform lives.
Throughout my childhood stories gave me reason to laugh or cry, know or wonder, stand still or move forward. I told stories to others and to myself with my dreams. My faith and that of my friends was underpinned by stories of the bible, torah or Qur’an. I learned industries such as Hollywood were built around the telling of stories. Those truths added to my emerging belief but did not make it firm or ready for sharing. I left childhood with my developing belief tucked away from outside scrutiny.
Through my teens and three decades of adulthood many experiences added strength and dimension to my belief in the power of stories to transform lives. During that time I saw families become closer, enemies speak, generations find common ground, and strangers become friends because of stories told. I saw lines of division erased when people saw their own story in the stories of others. Still, though strengthened and expanded, my belief was not at a state of absolute firmness. That state was unexpectedly reached in 2008.
That year I noticed a phenomenon among passengers sitting next to me on airplanes. They told me, a stranger, stories of their struggle with conflict. About 80% of those next to whom I sat revealed their conflict story. I felt honored, humbled and surprised they trusted me with their stories. Pushing aside an inclination to ask why they trusted me – I decided to listen.
My chance traveling companions shared stories of conflicts that had lasted for decades or through generations of families. People also told me stories of new conflicts with co-workers. Other tales were of deep conflict with a parent, child or sibling. One man revealed his renewed relationship with God created a conflict with his wife. Most of the passengers said they had not told their stories until we met. Like I had kept my beginning childhood belief tucked away, they had kept their stories.
The passengers said they felt liberated by telling their stories. They deplaned feeling freer than before and I with a ring and a promise to keep. The ring was a golden one for my belief. Their collective feeling of liberation made firm my belief in the power of stories to transform lives. Now, I turn to the promise I made those I met onboard – to use my belief, their stories and my expertise in conflict resolution to help others in conflict.