Monday, May 29, 2017

How being the butt of the joke can change the world

Brad and his York Story Slam trophy.
Oh, and a fancy craft beer.
Back in April, just days before our family made its trek to Disney World, Brad headed north to York to share a lecture on the art of storytelling as part of York: Crafted, an event that "gives York's doers and makers a platform to share their experience of what it means to craft, and to be a craftsman."

He'd been invited by the organizer of York Story Slam after he won the title of York's Best Storyteller for sharing an anecdote about the horrors of high school track shorts circa 1992 and the shame of realizing his snake was out of the cage in front of a grandstand of spectators during the 100-meter dash. 

Interested in hearing more about that? Oh, don't worry, it's on the internet. You can watch it right here. Make sure to let Brad know you've seen it ... I mean, if you can still look him in the eye and everything.


Despite having delivered not one but four crowd-pleasing tales at previous story slams, Brad was nervous about participating in Crafted. For one, the format was a bit more structured. Speakers were instructed to use something called the PechaKucha presentation format, which involves showing 20 slides that advance every 20 seconds to help keep the presentation concise and engaging. 

He also felt like the types of stories he shared (you know, ones about passing out on the toilet naked or being mistaken for a guy named Brian or eating spaghetti with his bare hands) were slightly less sophisticated than those of the other presenters, who shared on topics like Crafting Resilient Human Souls, The Crisis of Addiction and The Art of Overcoming Epilepsy.

But he did it anyway. Because after you've told the story about MacGyvering a tie for your manhood out of some spare shoelaces, you pretty much have humility to spare. 

Brad's presentation was overshadowed by Mickey Mouse and Liz Gilbert, which is a shame, because it's pretty awesome.

You should watch it... I'll wait. 


See what I mean? 
I'm so proud of Brad for going outside his comfort zone (What? You ask. Does Brad even have a comfort zone? Didn't he pretty much blow up his comfort zone by telling us that he got mugged in the Barbie aisle?) And his message about what it takes to craft a great story is important– even for those among you who aren't aspiring writers, artists or comedians. Why? Because it's at the heart of how we connect to each other– as family. Friends. Neighbors. A Nation.

While we all want to be a hero– the person who wins every race, gets every promotion, has all the most influential friends, has traveled to the most countries and has the most exciting stories– the reality is, those stories are exhausting. They're the stories of the Joneses whose lives are perpetually Facebook perfect. They breed envy and resentment. And that envy and resentment makes us feel smaller and less worthy. And none of that is the stuff of love. 

The stories we love to share– the stuff of legend– aren't the ones of the person born into privilege who never had to struggle, who never had moments of regret or shame, who achieved all their goals their first time with no resistance, who never had to overcome. 
The stories that speak to our souls are the opposite of all of that. They're the "Cool Runnings" stories. Where nobody remembers your name. Where no one thinks you have a chance. When things don't go as planned. Where you are the butt of the joke. 

They're the ones Brad shares for laughs– those moments of defeat transformed into lessons. They are those moments of vulnerability– someone opening up about addiction or the time they had bed bugs or how they sometimes want to run away into the woods forever instead of facing one more day with a house full of demanding children. Those very incidents that feel like they are going to break us, but end up shaping us into better people. Those are the most human of stories. Those are the stories that we bond over. That we share around camp fires for years to come.

Right now, as a nation we're being told that the only story worth sharing about us as a people is one of might. One of dominance and force. Where our ability to project power is the alpha and omega. Where moments of vulnerability are considered a fallacy, not an opportunity for growth.

I think that message is one borne out of fear, actually, not out of strength. 

And I don't think that is us. 

No, the roots of our stories bear the bones of Brad's stories. The ones where people left countries where they were oppressed religiously, racially and economically in search  of a new beginning. A chance to use the lessons they learned to build a better life. A story full of obstacles, frustrations, mistakes and (I assume) unfortunate bathroom situations. 

And just like the narrative of our human existence, our story as Americans has been fraught with plenty of shameful moments– our oppression of native people, enslavement of black people, suspicion and ostracization of foreigners– even though most of our ancestors were foreigners, too. This is the story we need to acknowledge and grow from. 

We don't need to be the Joneses of the world. We need to own who we are, warts and all, and the world will listen and understand, I think. Because it's their story, too. 

In a recent episode of "On Being" Krista Tippet quoted political theorist Hannah Arendt who wrote "The Origins of Totalitarianism."  
“ 'What prepares men for a totalitarian domination' — and here, again, is what happens in the human heart and psyche and society that makes these things possible — 'is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience, usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.' And if I think about the Brexit experience in the U.K., and I think about this last presidential election in the U.S., so much of the dynamic were human beings who had felt unseen and feel disconnected. It’s that language, she says, 'atomized, isolated individuals.' " 
One way to combat loneliness is with conversation, and conversation starts with finding commonalities or exploring differences. It starts with a story. It starts by being vulnerable.

I know that's a long way to go from Brad's tales of flashing and pants crapping (wait ... was that his or mine? I can't keep up with the familial shit storm). 

As always I start at Point A (share Brad's awesome storytelling abilities) and end up somewhere around Point R (extrapolate a larger message about interpersonal and international relations.) It's just the imperfect-yet-ongoing dialogue in my head - sorting through this life.

And it's Memorial Day and I feel reflective. 

I feel reflective and defensive. Because I know to some I'll sound naive. And I own this. I'm going to own my idealism. I just can't help but think the way we've gone about things is the wrong way – no matter how well intended we are. 

As evidenced by the rows and rows of alabaster headstones in Arlington, and the rows and rows of names reflected on the gleaming walls of the Vietnam Memorial, and the rows and rows of gold stars on the World War II memorial, and the suffering our veterans still face long after the end of combat – we cannot and should not choose the story of force and might as our first and only story – the stakes are just too high.

So, I don't know, let's start writing a different story.

Each of us. Do what Brad does. Write the story of those uncomfortable moments. Then share it with one person. Or a couple people. Or if you're feeling extra brave, a roomful of strangers. That humanity you experience in sharing is real. That's the stuff we are made of. That's the stuff that will save us.

For inspiration (and/or an uncomfortable chuckle), here's a few more of Brad's stories:

 York Story Slam January 2016 "New Beginnings" (i.e. that time no one knew his name)


Brad York Story Slam February 2016 "Sick" (i.e. that time he passed out pooping)

Brad York Story Slam October 2016 "Unmasked" (i.e. that time he went by Brian)


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