The Stories We Tell Ourselves

One summer in college, I worked at a summer camp. It was a sleepaway camp for kids as young as kindergarten-age and as old as high-school-age. The camp sessions were one- or two-week long and students could come back several times during the summer. As we hung out together, day and night, the need often arose to tell stories. There were stories that we, as counselors, told to keep our campers entertained and stories that they told to each other and to us to make the time past faster.

It was there that I realized the difference between stories they told and heard and stories that were told to me growing up.

I was born and raised in West Africa, a part of the world where storytelling is as part of Tradition as music or physical artifacts. Growing up in the suburbs, we had the video games and Saturday morning cartoons. It wasn’t until we lived with my grand-parents in the village that I got to experience storytelling. I remember one of my uncles (or whomever was in charge of entertaining the children that night) putting some yucca into the cinders left behind from  that night’s supper. It was part of the ritual. By the time the story was finished, the yucca would have finished roasting. It was then broken open and distributed to us, as a snack before bed.

We were a captive audience, paying attention to everything from the storyline to the changes to the tone and inclination of the voice. We had to. There was nothing to do at night. There was no electricity.

We sat close to each other, hoping that the story, this time, would not be a scary one. Because if it were, it would mean that going to bed that night was going to be a problem. It would mean that waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom was going to be a big  problem. There was no indoor plumbing.

It was at my summer camp job, some 15 years later that I noticed the difference between the stories of my childhood and the stories of my campers’ childhood.

In the stories that I grew up with, there was almost always a forest involved. And witches. Or Evil Stepmothers. Or Evil Widows who doubled as witches masquerading as old people. Sometimes, there were twins. Other times, there were siblings. One almost always did the right thing as a contrast to the “disobedient one” who did not. Sometimes, there were animals. The lion or the elephant was often wise while the spider was not.

In the stories of my childhood, Evil often won…or at least went undefeated. However, there is always a survivor of the ordeal orchestrated by evil. To tell the story of the one who didn’t make it, the one who was the “cautionary tale”. There was always a lesson given at the end and it almost always involved honoring one’s parents or elders.

In the stories my campers have grown up with, Good wins. All the time. There is a hero. Whether she was a red hiding hood or not. Evil changes his or her way at the end or admits defeat. Though implied, a moral lesson is not explicitly stated. Being a hero often meant being smarter or stronger than Evil.

If I were to be asked a few years ago, which story was better, I would have said the second one. The second style champions Human Agency and reinforces Positivity…that Good always wins. Now, however, I’ve come to understand each story within its context and realize that each story’s ending has a lot to do with how the culture from which it came, views its children. It also speaks volumes to the lessons each culture would like its children to know.

The first story forces its listeners to accept the possibility and the existence of Evil. It invites the still-growing generation to accept the fact that things won’t always go their way. The second story encourages its listeners to choose Good over Evil and to recognize and fight injustice wherever it may be found.

I see the value of both stories.

Photo via  ABC

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