Religion & Liberty Online

Storytelling Is Freedom

Stories are more than entertainment. They can also be liberating experiments in reinvention and reimagining what might otherwise be tragic lives. Stories can help us see—and craft—a better ending for ourselves and those we love.

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When I was four years old—and for many years later—my favorite pastime was frog hunting. There was no swamp pond or quagmire I was unwilling to traverse in the name of a robust, amphibious catch.

One warm midsummer day—when I should have been taking a nap—I disobeyed my mother, escaped my soporific confines, and succumbed to the siren song of the frog.

I had recently discovered a good spot at the lake across the street from our home—a spot that had blessed me with a uniquely abundant yield: I had caught the biggest bullfrog of my frog-hunting career, and I couldn’t wait to share it with my friends.

Giddy with enthusiasm, I collected my prize gently in my hands and dashed across the street to the lake to display my latest trophy (and then, of course, to release my amphibious friend, as was my practice).

Single-minded in my joy and zeal of the moment, I neglected to look both ways before I crossed the street.

The next thing I knew, the world went black.

It felt like the truck had come out of nowhere. But I also should have been paying attention.

I remember awakening, slowly, mother’s face hovering above me coming into focus.

“Where is my frog?!” I gushed.

Somewhere in our family archives, there is a photo of me on a stretcher in a neck brace in the back of an ambulance clutching my beloved bullfrog in my hands.

I’ve recently been sharing this story with my three-year-old son, Percival, as a cautionary tale about why it is so important to obey our parents, and to look both ways crossing the street.

I don’t end on a sad note with the story of my car accident when I tell it to my son, though.

Instead of keeping it at the level of trauma, I turn it into a story of redemption and purpose, telling my son that God saved my life when that massive pickup truck hit me at the age of four. I tell him how I went on to excel in sports growing up, confounding the doctors’ predictions.

I end the tale of my accident on a high note so as to harness the power of stories to help us heal and to go on living with dignity and strength. Stories have the possibility to transform our greatest traumas into our greatest triumphs.

I learned how to do this from an extraordinary storyteller—someone I have read and studied for years now. I’m referring to one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl, the Jewish-Austrian philosopher and psychiatrist who suffered under the barbarism of the Third Reich, who survived the Holocaust, shows us how he was able to craft from his own suffering and that of those around him the meaning necessary to reclaim his life, freedom, and ultimately his dignity as a human being. But that meaning came into focus by recalling, and relating, the stories bound up in that terrible time.

Frankl was sent to a concentration camp—Auschwitz—after he had been married for only nine months. His entire family was wiped out. He describes his experience in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He explains that though the guards who treated him and others so brutally and inhumanely could take away their physical freedoms—through imprisonment, torture, starvation—they could not take away their mental and psychological freedom. Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl tells a story of a man who was absolutely certain that liberation would come, and that the war would end, on a specific date. As the date drew near, the man began to lose hope that his prophecy would come true. On the day before his alleged liberation date, he fell very ill. By the date itself, he had died. In a way, Frankl notes, the man fulfilled his own prophecy. The more he lost hope that there was an end in sight to his suffering, the more quickly he deteriorated physically and psychologically. Frankl noticed a pattern among his fellow prisoners: Those who survived had a reason to live—a loved one, or a day to look forward to (a real day, not an arbitrary date that they had predicted would bring an end to their suffering). Those who died the quickest had lost all hope and given up all meaning. Frankl said that a person with a strong why can endure any how. We cannot control suffering in life, but only how we respond to it. He wrote that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He continued, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I love this final insight from Frankl, encouraging us that in choosing the right frame narrative—with the right disposition toward our circumstance—we can find meaning amid tragedy: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

We need stories, other people’s stories, to take part in the Great Conversation, that iterative dialogue on questions of origin, purpose, suffering, and meaning between the great minds that have come before us and ourselves.

I personally find that adopting faith in a God who created the world beautiful and on purpose—and created humanity to in turn be creative—to be deeply ennobling. Whatever one’s belief about the origins of the universe, one can still see human beings as little creators who can make the world better and more beautiful wherever we go, starting with our stories. When people tell stories, blemishes and all, suffering and all, to affirm their humanity and express their freedom, they affirm their own dignity and that of others. Forming our own, coherent stories is how we cultivate a sense of self.

The story of Frankl’s life, and the stories he recalls of the lives that impacted his own, demonstrates that trauma can be redeemed through acknowledging it as part of life but never giving it the final word. Storytelling—or reframing how we recount memories of past experiences—can help that process of redemption. Stories also help broaden our horizons by helping us put our specific painful experiences into the greater context of our lives and the lives of the people around us. What can we share that will inform their life stories and help them create and grow?

According to “narrative paradigm,” a theory conceptualized by a leading scholar of communication, Walter Fisher, all meaningful human communication occurs through storytelling. According to this theory, whether we realize it or not, we are all storytellers or listeners of stories at different times in our lives.

After admiring and reading Frankl over the course of my life, I was inspired to put this into practice, beginning with the story of my car accident growing up, and in many other ways, too. No human being is without their baggage, their wounds, their traumas. Stories, I’ve found, as Frankl did, are vital to healing and redemption.

My suffering is negligible compared to that of Frankl and many others throughout human history. Yet the story I shared of getting hit by a truck as a child—and one that I now tell my son as a cautionary tale about obedience and the possible harm of disobedience—could have left me resentful that such a senseless accident happened to me at such a young age. Why me? I could have pondered. I’ve since had that thought about other frustrating things that have happened in life.

I could have seen it as a tragedy. I could have seen it as the end of my story.

Inspired by Frankl, however, I chose to see it as a new beginning. I worked at my recovery and made the most of my situation, which was empowering.

Stories confront us with the infinite beauty, diversity, and complexity of human beings. They help us ask and answer for ourselves, What does it mean to be human? What is the best way to live?

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that humans are “condemned to be free.” Humans are uniquely self-aware. We are conscious of our own mortality. Our freedom means that we have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding who we want to be—what logic, ethic, moral code we want to live up to— each moment of our lives. There is a duality to freedom, and there is a duality to storytelling, too. Stories, like freedom, can be used to unite or divide, to harm or to elevate, to dignify or degrade, to humanize or depersonalize.

Yes, many things happen—often tragic—that are outside of our control. But we can decide how we respond to them, and how to recast the facts of what happens to us in a more empowering and constructive light—in the light of the broader sweep of our lives, even in the light of eternity, in the knowledge that there is a Master Author who superintends all things.

We can choose to write—and rewrite, as the case may sometimes be—our own story.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson is an author and the curator of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to moral and cultural renewal. She is a former Novak Journalism Fellow, and her book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. Enjoy her series with The Teaching Company and Wondrium, Storytelling and the Human Condition, complimentary, here.