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The Storytelling Animal

September 12th, 2012by Dan Thomas

I just finished a book whose title gives a reasonably accurate definition of what it means to be a human being: The Storytelling Animal. Its subtitle also captures an important truth about stories: How Stories Make Us Human. This book explores the many different kinds of stories in our lives: dreams, daydreams, novels, films, games, and the sacred stories we tell to understand our faith.

The really important stories are those we tell about our lives. These stories guide how we live and affect the way we see ourselves. A recent novel entitled Faithful Place tells of the oldest son of an Irish family whose story was his role as protector of his younger siblings from the alcoholic anger of their father. When the second son refused to take his place in this story, murder was the result.

As I look at my own life one of the “stories” that guided it was that of being the oldest son in my family. I was to be the one to whom my brothers followed and were supposed to look up to. It was important that I do the right thing and, for the most part that is what I did. My mother told us that she thought she was the perfect parent. Then my younger brother came along!

He was the extrovert who never knew a stranger. He was always exploring new things and places. He discovered many exciting adventures and, of course, often got into a certain amount of trouble. He was a gifted person who ended up an enlisted man in the Nuclear Navy, a very rare bird in Admiral Rickover’s world.

Ed and I were typical siblings: we loved each other, but also competed fiercely with one another. We went in very different directions, were very different people! We didn’t always appreciate each other the way we could have.

In the Navy and afterward alcohol became a problem that Ed wrestled with for the rest of his life. He became an electrician whose outstanding work won him many jobs. But there were also times when he disappeared for months and was found homeless.

In November of 2000, I got a call from my brother Jim that Ed was dying in the VA hospital in Tampa. When I first walked into his room, I went to the second bed because that person in the first bed couldn’t have been him. It was!

The third day we were in his room and were asked to go to the hospital lounge so the nurses could care for him. A man walked in to the lounge and asked if we were the Thomas family. He proceeded to tell us what a wonderful friend and man Ed was.

Later after his death, the nurses shared their experiences of Ed as a cheerful, caring person who talked to the other patients and made their life happier. My perception of Ed was changed profoundly. My “story” of who he was and the meaning and value of his life has never been the same. I realized that the brother I grew up with continued in this person who seemed to have so many problems. I’ve learned to see him and others like him as sons and daughter of a loving God who knows who they are and loves them as they are. I pray that I can do the same. I continue to learn from this “story” what God’s call is for me in my life now.

Dan Thomas

Dan Thomas is a retired Director of Religious Education, living in Dayton Ohio. His education includes graduation from Chaminade HS and the University of Dayton (MA in Pastoral Ministry). He is married with two adult sons and is a parishioner at St. Helen, Dayton.