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The power of stories we tell and we hear

By STEVEN SPELLMAN

Publication: The Day

Published September 01. 2013 4:00AM

The heroic story of Antoinette Tuff, the woman who prevented a mass school shooting Aug. 20 at an elementary school near Atlanta, contains lessons within lessons. Tuff, a school clerk, spent about an hour calmly persuading the gunman carrying an AK-47 assault rifle and other weapons to put his rifle down and surrender.

Tuff told ABC's Diane Sawyer, "I just started telling him stories," She told him: "You don't have to die today" and shared a story of tragedy in her own life.

This extraordinary event had considerable synchronicity for me because, at the time, I was reading Rebecca Solnit's fine new book, "The Faraway Nearby," about the power of stories to stop death.

Solnit writes: "In The Thousand and One Nights, known in English as The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells stories in order to keep the sultan in suspense from night to night so he will not kill her. The backstory is that the sultan caught his queen in the embrace of a slave and decided to sleep with a virgin every night and slay her every morning so that he would not be cuckolded again. Scheherazade volunteered to try to end the massacre and did so by telling him stories that carried over from one night to the next for nights that stretched into years. She spun stories around him that kept him in a cocoon of anticipation from which he eventually emerged a less murderous man ... We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or be blind."

Stories are life

Solnit's prose and the extraordinary events in Georgia remind us of the power of stories. We are a people enchanted by stories. Ellie Wiesel went so far as to suggest that God made people because he loves stories.

Stories have been told as long as speech has existed. In fact, every religion's sacred texts are all tales about characters who must confront life and overcome obstacles. It is extraordinary that Antoinette Tuff took a moment in the midst of inestimable stress to recognize and show interest in the life story of the disturbed young man with the AK-47. She suggested to him that his story did not have to end that way, and it made all the difference.

There isn't any story as important as the one you tell yourself. Sometimes what happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of those events affect us. A great deal depends on the kinds of tales we find the strength to believe. In a Georgia school, the lives of over 800 children hung in the balance.

Listen carefully

So let us take a moment today and every day to step out of our own stories and listen carefully to the story of someone else. It might be a fairy tale or a nightmare, and perhaps the greatest gift we can give each other is to share the vision of a better ending.

It makes considerable sense to tell stories that comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

More important than anything, don't let anyone get hung up on believability.

As Yann Martel told those readers of "Life of Pi" who found it difficult to believe a tiger was living in the lifeboat: "If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe? .Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

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