Storytellers and standing in the presence of the big question: who am I?

Welcome to post number three of four for my independent study on adults and lifelong learning! I had a lot of fun collecting my thoughts and questions in my first two posts on describing the current situation of adults in American life. All of this is heavily informed by Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

This week I want to consider how this class has impacted my understanding of my 6-session, small group, faith-based Storytellers curriculum. Yes, I write curriculum, for fun, for faith communities. I didn’t like what was out there so I made my own. That’s not true, or all the way, I just wanted to contribute my own particular flavor to the mix. It’s amazing how few resources are out there for adult curriculum but MONSTEROUS amounts of resources of Sunday school and children’s curriculum. Perhaps an example of the vacuum of churches understanding the value of lifelong learning? Let me rephrase that: The church does not often place a high value on adults’ capacity to learn and widen their worldviews. Granted, another programmatic need is not what churches look for. But this isn’t a program and the need for adults to feel affirmed and valued in their continued learning of themselves, their neighbors, and their world in this day and age is just too important to ignore. (/off soapbox)

So, quickly let me summarize Storytellers and how it came to be (in it’s current form):

In my commute to Trinity Lutheran in Stillwater, MN from St. Paul in 2014 I heard a TED talk that featured storytellers like Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her experience of being stereotyped by her college roommate led her to write and speak about the danger of the single story. She argued that the danger of a single story of a person is that the whole self, the complex self, is watered down to a single characteristic, a single image, or a single story. Danger! I agree with Adichie, we are all complex, have many stories, and have many dimensions, and change and grow from one day to the next.

I wanted to make a tool that helped congregations come to this same conclusion: to see their stories collected in the form of word art, displayed in a public space so they would remember, often, their identity, and that God’s story is speaking through all of their stories. So, in concert with some strategic thinking going on as a staff, I created Storytellers based on the five emerging values of the congregation. Each value is embedded in each of the five prompts. Each are explored, one per session, with the phrasing, “Tell me a story of… when you served your neighbor,” or, “Tell me a story of… when you realized you had something to say about God,” etc. We piloted it as a staff, and I asked participants at the ELCA Youth Network Extravaganza in Detriot to pilot in their congregations too, in their small groups.

Imagine this folded in half like a booklet, full of doodles and stories and phrases like "I remember when..."

Imagine this folded in half like a booklet, full of doodles and stories and phrases like “I remember when…”

I think what I’ve learned about the cultural expectation of adults has a major impact on how I hope people will interact with the Storytellers curriculum. For instance, how might someone in a 3rd order consciousness interact with Storytellers? How might someone in a 4th order consciousness interact with Storytellers? If you need reminding what these 1-5 levels of consciousness are as outlined in Robert Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads, watch this easy-to-follow illustration by illustrator, pastor and PhD candidate (Luther Sem, Congregational Mission and Leadership) Steve Thomason:

So according to Kegan, someone with a third order consciousness can differentiate between themselves and another person, but they also have the ability to abstract, or have and create ideas. They know themselves (self-conscious), but they don’t yet see their ability to self-author or design/create new realities for themselves. They can place themselves in society, but don’t see society as a place or people that is impacted by them. Kegan equates this consciousness as characteristic of the traditionalist (pre-modern) era.

Fourth order consciousness builds on third order’s person ability to abstract by seeing themselves as capable of self-authorship. They see that the society they inhabit is just one society among many societies in the world. They start to see the relationships between relationships – or what you might say they ‘acknowledge boundaries’. Kegan equates this consciousness as characteristic of the modern era.

Now between these two, it’s easy to say “4 is better!” But I have to remember that this model is not for the sake of identifying whose better, but where are we at for the sake of being empathetic with our neighbors. Not to “feel sorry for them” but truly, to walk in their shoes, and demonstrate genuine empathy for each other in a world that is often hostile to different ways of knowing or different ways or learning or “being smart.” I think for Storytellers, I have to step back and think through, “What’s being asked of participants?” They’re asked to be honest, vulnerable, reflective on their life through the lens of these prompts, and see themselves as complex individuals with lots of stories and layers. Basically, they have to ask “Who am I?”

Storytellers asks participants to reflect on their life in an identity-forming way. I think this might create some anxiety within third-order thinkers because it’s asking them to not only be conscious of themselves, but be self-authoring, a trait of a 4th order thinker. But what Storytellers could do is provide a frame or a structure within which they can explore these big reflective questions (as expressed by my Prof. Mary Hess). The structure might ease their anxiety, and the questions or prompts might offer just the right amount of challenge to help them move into a 4th order way of thinking.

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Photo by Markus Spiske / Design by Alice Mongkongllite for BuzzFeed

Now I don’t believe one small group curriculum can shift a person’s thinking overnight, but it could be one step, albeit small. It might help a person see that in the midst of all their stories, and all their friends’ stories, is a story of God redeeming, sustaining, and breathing through creation – breathing through them.

I think Kegan’s model of the 1st-5th consciousnesses could really provide a richness for thinking through more deeply how a participant might interact with Storytellers. Even though it might be small, it is kind of cool to think that something I created could make a difference, at least a small difference, in how someone sees their life and other’s lives as valuable and beautiful.

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2 thoughts on “Storytellers and standing in the presence of the big question: who am I?

  1. Allison,

    I love what you are doing here. I look forward to learning more about the story telling process in the congregation.

    Reply

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