Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Power of Story

Some 300,000 Allied and American soldiers were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. One in three perished. There were a lot more POW’s in the European theatre but only one in thirteen perished there. These are just historical facts. Interesting but no one except history buffs get too excited about the statistics.

My father was one of the 300,000 captured in the Pacific, and he was one of the 200,000 that survived. He was severely malnourished and diseased but he survived. The doctors said he would never be able to have children because of the damage done by those three and a half years. The doctors were wrong. I am one of his five children. And not only did my father survive and have children, he thrived and raised a family that now numbers forty-one, with more on the way. I am passionate about telling his story.

My father survived the Bataan Death March, two POW camps and a prison infirmary in the Philippines, a hell ship transport, and forced labor in a copper mine in northern Japan. His three-and-a-half-year ordeal as a prisoner of war is a story of the power and grace of God combined with the determination and hope of a young man. All of a sudden people are very interested in and emotionally moved by this POW story. Why? Because it is a personal story and not just a historical fact. Personal stories are powerful. When told with passion and detail they engage people in quite remarkable ways.

First, personal stories can introduce the listener to a real person. When told well, the audience feels like they come to know the person. Second, personal stories can cause the listener to remember stories of their own. Emotional connection with another person’s story brings to mind experiences of their own and re-engagement with their past. Third, personal stories can inspire listeners to engage more fully in the present. When people experience deep emotion related to real-life experiences of others, they are inspired to experience life more deeply in the present.

This past week I have been telling my father’s POW story, and the response is quite remarkable. People of all ages and stages of life experience my father as a person and express significant appreciation for who he was. People of all ages and stages also open up and begin telling their own stories that are equally engaging. Many of the stories I have been told in the last week have never been told before. Hearing my father’s story encouraged them to tell theirs. And people of all ages and stages expressed a desire to engage more fully in the present—appreciating family and friends, and making the most of whatever life they have to live.

I love telling my father’s story. I love it because it reconnects me to him even though he died five years ago. But I also love telling my father’s story because of the way it impacts those who hear it. The multiplication potential is incalculable. I especially love that my father’s story encourages others to tell their stories too. Personal stories are powerful. The more people telling them, the more life will be enriched for all who tell and all who hear.

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