“Why did God create human beings? Because God loves stories.”
This is what Elie Wiesel concluded based on his studies of Jewish literature, and I love the idea, even though I must be a real disappointment to God since I can’t seem to tell stories, at least not orally.
My relationships with friends, colleagues and the members of the congregation I serve haven’t been threatened by my oral story-telling disability, and neither have my relationships with loved ones. With one significant exception. Let me introduce you to my daughter. “Hi. I’m Tina and I’m a story-holic.” (Using her newest favorite word, she might tell you she has a “story craze.”) Whenever I’m with her, she asks me several times, “Dad, do you want to tell me a story?” And I almost always oblige, unless I’m still chewing my food, in which case Tina will wait 10 seconds and ask again. When a story starts it becomes the most important thing and flows from one activity into another—from the car to the dinner table to bath time to bedtime, sometimes picking up again in the morning. Teaching me to become a storyteller (albeit a very unpolished one) is just one of the many ways Tina has helped me to become a better person.
At first Tina was satisfied with retellings of her favorite books and then I expanded my repertoire to include mash-ups of familiar characters and plotlines (e.g., Dora and Boots prevent Swiper from stealing the baa baa black sheep’s three bags of wool).
In a confluence of her mental development and being a typically contrarian two-year-old, Tina has lately become a considerably more critical consumer of stories. As soon as I introduce the story’s topic and cast of characters, she’ll say, “NO, I want a different story.” (She pronounces it “dRifferent,” though.) Or she’ll say, “NO,” and then correct me—introducing a different scenario and, quite often, more characters—NO, they go to the CIRCUS, not the zoo, and it’s me and my neighbors and grandparents and cousins and most of the major and minor characters from Dora the Explorer and Caillou and maybe Arthur. At first this was frustrating—I am a budding auteur, I can’t work under these conditions!—but I’ve learned to be grateful for her creative input because of the opportunity it affords me to sit back and marvel at human development.
A few days ago I came across an old On Being program in which child psychologist Robert Coles identified the fundamental propensity shared by children and religious traditions for pursuing understanding through stories and asking the hard, important questions. Then I witnessed this for myself when, while telling Tina the Passover story for the first time, her questioning went into overdrive. It wasn’t just the sheer number of questions she asked—Why did Pharaoh enslave the Israelites? Why wouldn’t he let them have children? Why did Moses flee Egypt? and on and on—but also the repetition of certain questions. She was especially concerned about why the “bad king” did not want the Israelites to have children. I can see why this would be especially troubling to a child, but it should be troubling to everyone else, too! Why would someone do something so evil? Children ask questions most adults have given up on, even though giving up on the questions means surrendering much of our power to solve the problem the question identifies.
Sitting on the bathroom floor, with Tina in the bathtub, I thought about Pharaoh’s actions in a new way. I did not tell Tina the answers I had accepted before—because Pharaoh was a tyrant and that’s the kind of thing tyrants do, or because his magicians predicted that one Israelite child would be their future redeemer so all children had to be killed. I told her, “Because when people have children they won’t let them be mistreated. They will fight for a better life for their children.”
And of course she asked, “Why?”
Because, we love stories.