Monday, 5 July 2021

We Are Family


The proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" is attributed as a life motto from various African sources. This motto is reflected in similar motifs that I have discovered in my opportunities to study Anthropology within ethnic groups that would be recognized in the classical sense as hunter-gatherers or tribal societies.  The “it takes a village...” maxim effectively means that an entire community of people is necessary to interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. It is poignant to note that it also takes the collective energy and focus of many people behind us to help craft a well-designed, pleasing, well-published, packaged, marketed and impactful story in book or often in other forms. Perhaps we could utilize some creative license and mix our metaphors a bit by illuminating what I am saying here simply by noting: “It takes a village to write a book”. But before we get too far in this story-writing-production-village-focus, we should start with a basic beginning. We need a writing family.  Our creativity is best expressed, and best crafted when it is moulded together with the (often loving) support of others. Or to put it another way: good story tellers need a good team. This is where we can learn from those hunter-gatherer societies. They tell stories that help raise generations of children into adulthood very well.

Shane Brigg in PNG with a few friends

Hunter-Gatherers' story telling is conducted as a social contract in a mutual context, with friends and family. God has made us to be highly social beings. We like to be with other people, especially with those we know well; and we like to do what our friends do. In our ‘moderno-metroistic’ culture we long for this, we claim to be connected (at least technologically) but are living lives that are seemingly more and more isolated and where we long for closer authentic relationships. We may even be jealous of the seemingly simplistic play-oriented connected reality we might see in documentaries about hunter-gatherers who experience very social lives. Anthropologists have marveled at the enormous skill and intelligence shown by tribal societies in their hunting and gathering. The tools of hunting must be crafted to perfection; and skill in using those tools effectively must be developed through years of play with them and the accompanying stories. Hunters must also learn the habits of hundreds of different species of mammals and birds that they hunt, which the children do in part through games of imitating the animals around them, and by storytelling. They learn to identify each animal by its sounds and tracks as well as by its sight, and by telling their stories. Everything is noticed, considered, and discussed.  Likewise, the gathering of vegetable foodstuffs requires great knowledge and skill. These abilities include physical skills, honed by years of practice, as well as the capacity to remember, use, add to, and modify an enormous store of culturally shared verbal knowledge, all passed on via storytelling. The point I am making is this: Most work in the tribal villages (where we get the adage above) is done cooperatively, and even that which is done individually is done in social settings, with others around. In all this, stories are told that raise the children, empower adults, and shape their society.

As a school Chaplain of many years, I am absolutely honoured to be afforded the recognition and responsibility of being a champion for our village and an encourager of families and the broader school “Family”.  I like to think of this family as a space where everyone can gain hope through a sense of belonging, discovering purpose and even finding meaning as we journey together. In a way I am recognized as one of our school community’s chief story tellers. Like a tribal elder, I am called upon to tell a positive narrative. Not just moralistic, but one that is hope-filled, equipping and somehow wise.  I intrinsically, and humbly see my role as helping to craft the story of all the individuals, families, groups and aspects of our school life, but I hold this in awe and respect as I recognize that it is not just me who is the story maker. It takes many people to help create the narrative that builds for positive futures.

Helping people reframe their stories is positive team business. Across cultures and time, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining, but as agents of personal transformation. The vocations of many great novelists, scriptwriters, songwriters, story tellers are developed on this premise (conscious or not). Stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their souls – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we live and move and act. As Stanley Kunitz put it: “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.”  Our Parents’ get togethers are an important part of what I do as a Chappy in our school ‘village’. Each Monday morning, we gather at our Primary School Café for chats. This is a great way to help share the load, inspire, organically equip each other, and simply support one another on the parenting journey. In this we share each other’s stories and burdens and help redesign the story of people grappling with all sorts of challenges. Stories alter our thinking and, in turn, the way we engage with the world. Stories that we share can help each other. Stories that are created together have the potential to change the world.

The stories that move us shape our thought processes in much the same way that our own lived experience does. When we read a well written story about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s natural for our own hearts to pound. We argue with stories, internally or out loud. We talk back. We praise. We denounce. Every story is the beginning of a conversation, with ourselves as well as with others. In the context of our school Chaplaincy, we see this played out very powerfully in mentoring. A student being offered mentoring means that they are part of our “mentoring “family”” and this means that there are trusted adults who will be accessible for support and encouragement for students. Mentoring highlights the huge value that sharing stories plays. At a recent mentoring session one of our students communicated in front of his peers and visiting teachers that the vitality of mentoring and the sharing of his life story for him was like having a second family that was in his view more functional and nurturing than his own. It showed to him that someone cared because they listened to his story. He said that it was also helping him have a sense of belonging and had given him skills for life!

Our International Families gatherings at our school are get togethers of people from many different backgrounds sharing flavours, favours, and fabulous insights from their cultures with snacks, games, stories and more. Research shows that bringing migrant children and their families together for culturally appropriate, fun, and safe activities can significantly improve a child’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as help them to navigate school with more confidence. Groups like these also help to enhance parenting skills and develop the social networks of families who share similar life experiences. This has become such a valued time of “family” for many. It is also a good time to reflect on how people are going at looking after themselves and others in the different areas in their lives that require care (physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, relational and safety & security). It also empowers networks around people that helps to meet those needs.


Perhaps what I have been promoting here is best expressed in a very personal example.

In the writing of what seems to be my magnum opus (mainly because it seems it is taking a lifetime to frame and complete) I have engaged several of the sensibilities mentioned above.

Of eminence is an episode that brought a chapter of my story to completion, and fulfillment in how I had hoped for some time how it might bless others. I had sat writing a particular piece for some time. Writing it. Reading it. Reflecting on it. Re writing it. It was a deep expression of how my main character was coming to terms with her father’s sickness and their strained relationship. I had come to realise that her story was a way of me telling my story. But it never was fully crafted until the week I re wrote it, edited it, formatted it and gave it to my father as a gift. It was never really finished until all that was completed, but especially not done until I sat with my Dad and read the chapter to him. It was the story (like my main character) of how I was wrestling with my own Dad’s sickness, mortality, and frailty and how I loved him in the midst of all the relational challenges that had been raised between us as I grew up and now as an adult reconciling that I loved my Dad, and I knew he loved me. But I needed to get this message to him. The story did this job. As we sat crying and hugging together with my wife and my Mum and of course my Dad. I had said what I needed to say. The story helped me do that. But it also helped my Dad say what he had wanted to say for a long, long time.


Maybe this chapter will get published formally one day. But for me the journey to craft this bit of a bigger story has already made the impact I had hoped for. My life had been raised by loving parents in challenging circumstances. That is true and was an important part of my telling through my fictional characters. Our family -or little village- had successfully helped to raise this child. But the child in some ways could not be the man he is today without the telling of this story, and this meant a listening audience of critics who just happened to be the most important people in my life, who helped not just make the story, but helped bring it direction, clarity, meaning and encouragement to write more.


I guess if I am going to write more, I need to develop the team around me further. Maybe that team starts like the example above (loving family who listen, journey together, encourage, positively critique, nurture, empower and support). Of course, that team needs to be developed beyond friends and family with specialists (editors, publicists, etc) and supporters, but that is a story for another time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing such poignant, heartfelt thoughts on the positive power of stories. I still smile when our adult children recall with humour the funny stories my Beloved recalls from his childhood ... or theirs ... 'Well you know what I always say ...' And of course they do, especially the far-fetched 'recollections'.

    Whether humorous, anecdotal or testimonial, empowerment and wisdom flow through stories - for the teller and the listener. As you say,'The stories that move us shape our thought processes in much the same way that our own lived experience does.'