Probably all of us have had the experience of being "trapped" with an older person who just goes on and on about his or her life. You're on the airplane, trying to get some work done, and Uncle Joe just won't shut up about his aches and pains and operations. Or you're in the waiting room at the dentist and Aunt Mary keeps showing you pictures of and talking about her grandchildren.
So, when we think of recalling our stories, this image may come to mind. Having been the "victim" of such storytelling, we may recoil from the very idea of doing so.
But the storytelling we're interested in here isn't just the personal recalling of one's own experiences—although certainly that does figure into it. When we're talking about story-telling here, we're talking about something much broader.
First, it's important to note that the purpose of the sort of stories we're interested in here—we'll call them new elderstories—is different. The primary purpose of new elderstories is not to give the teller an opportunity to simply bend someone's ear or vent; rather, it is to provide some guidance or inspiration first to oneself and, secondarily, to the one being told.
Second, new elderstories have a context that connects them to something more than just the individual. In the telling of new elderstories, we aren't just going on about our own lives, we're offering a perspective that connects our own experience to something more universal.
In the telling of new elderstories, three stories emerge. Each of us begins by articulating "my story"—our own hero's journey, if you will. We move, then, to communicating "our story"—the myths and legends of our own people. Finally, elders learn to articulate "the story"—the common themes of humanity that bind us all together, in all ages and at all times.
The stories of Mitch Albom's former professor, Morrie, in Tuesdays with Morrie are a powerful example of such stories. Subtitled An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson, the book's central message can be summed in Morrie's statement: "When you learn how to die, you learn how to live." While Morrie talks to Mitch about events in his own life, the stories have a power that resonates beyond the details he provides. Moving beyond Morrie's experience, the stories encompass the emotional realities of Mitch's life, too. Then, expanding even further, Morrie's story comes to articulate universal stories of life and death, as well.
One way to begin crafting such stories from your own life experience is to approach them backward. That is, rather than starting with the personal, start with the universal and think about the experiences you have had that reflect those larger concerns. As a way to approach this, you might start with some of the "big questions" and work your way back to your own story.
This is pretty much the approach favored by the Great American Think-Off, a nationwide competition sponsored by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center that encourages philosophical reflection by "regular folks." Each year, they propose a "big question" for people in all walks of life to answer. In 2003, for instance, their question was "Do We Reap What We Sow?"
Dave used his own experiences as an unsuccessful child gardener to argue that we don't, in fact, get back from the universe exactly in proportion to what we give out. Whether or not his answer is correct is somewhat beside the point; what was effective about his essay—at least for the Think-Off judges—was that it drew from the personal to comment on the universal.
When we are able to do this, we go a long way toward making connections with others that are illuminating to all parties involved. Dave learned a lot from his experience in the ThinkOff, probably much more than his audience. Nonetheless, it's clear that he touched them in some way; they did, after all, vote him as tied-for-third Greatest Thinker in America!