Three Things I know about Stories

After almost twenty years in the trenches, there are three things I know about Stories.

1.Stories matter. They create power, incite wars, cause trauma, offer healing, feed despair, nourish hope. I am an evangelist for the ministry of stories, mapping their power in order to create a new narrative ethic of accountability. These last 17 years of work with promising leaders from Northern Ireland & Ireland, South Africa, Israel & Palestine, I know first hand the destructive power of old stories of hatred and the creative power of new stories of possibility. Being Half Welsh, half Irish and five/fourths Australian-(never good at math), its time for me to cherish the stories.

2. Stories are never innocent. They are pervasive, perverse, and always dangerous. Whose stories get told, heard and enacted, are all expressions of power. Equally, whose stories are censored, silenced or falsified bear the masks of oppression. Stories hold up our world because we story our lives into meaning, and meaning informs our choices and our actions. The public stories fed to us every day by governments, media, churches and corporations have turned out to be mostly lies. Yet the chance to unleash story power to inspire positive social change has never been more possible or more necessary. After 20 years in the field, its time to move narrative change into a 3.0 hyperconnected world and foster a renewed narrative ethic that treasures honesty over expediency, trust over trust funds, and need over greed. Human decency needs once again to be the coin of the realm.

3. Stories need to be harvested. My own included. 2014 is our time to sum up and share this body of work, by writing the manual-how to change the world by changing the stories. And boy, do we have work to do.! Not just the Middle East, but the economy, climate change, poverty, the environment, the economy, energy, immigration, health care, education. If ever there was a time for a new story and new leadership, that time is NOW. I am eager to meet other story-inspired people out there to help create a social movement for change where WE shape the stories that shape us, not the other way around. That means harnessing the power of stories to humanize, elevate, dignify, instead of pandering to the brands and demands of global capitalism that exploit, cheapen or  degrade.

If you have taken time to read this, then consider yourself invited.

Listening to the Children- Listening to the Future

When a Pope or a President visits overseas, the schedule is much more than a tourists’ “Places You Must See.” Given the audience, every stop is subject to interpretation.  He is on a mission where every move is a message.

This picture that has gone around the world and back, the Pope at the Wall, is evidence of what we are talking about.

I was in Bethlehem a few days before the Pope arrived, being shown the Wall by my alums and friends, and we got to chatting about the Papal visit. We thought that as improbable as it might seem, we hoped the Pope would stop at the Wall somewhere and be seen seeing the daily reality of the Palestinian people.

Well, it was as if the Pope was overhearing our chat because he did. But he did more than that. The world media have fed us the usual photo grabs of Francis saying mass,  planting olive trees etc and visiting holy sites and museums, but some other images have slowly trickled out. One that has grabbed me is his visit to the Deheisha Refugee Camp, where I also visited recently. It is a place where time stopped in 1948. After the Nakba, these refugees came here, and now, they remain stuck in one square kilometer of 13,000 people made up mostly of kids. Pope Francis paid a visit and this is the video of part of it.عالمي/فيديو/باسم-أطفال-فلسطين،-هذا-ما-قاله-للبابا-5792085135327232

The Pope hears from the children of Deheisha Refugee camp- where this very articulate little boy called Mohammad, got the chance to speak. Even when one doesn’t speak Arabic, you get the idea he is telling the Pope their story.   To see the Pope sitting and attentive is an ikon of change- that someone is listening. Even though this picture did not boomerang around the world like the others, it is perhaps even more important. Why? Because the Wall is nothing more than the sorry and tragic past carried into an ugly and fearful present. What the Pope did at Deheisha was listen to the future. 
(To read what he said,)

The little boy’s family know the past- his father was in an Israeli prison while he was growing up. But Mohammad told the Pope that the children of Palestine wish to live in peace with Israel and with the whole world. Is that a dream we can refuse?

The next day, Francis flew into Israel, and met with President Perez and in the welcome, he and the President listened to the Alleluias of Israeli kids. Look at the video. They are dressed in white, the same as the Palestinian kids, and  have angelic faces and so much energy. What talent! What hope!

If these kids and the kids of Deheisha camp could share dreams, you can bet that they would discover they inhabit the exact same story of promise that kids everywhere take as normal.

Israel and Palestine will depend on this generation to imagine a future they can create together, one that their parents devoutly wished for them, and yet, a future that they cannot assure  them. Perhaps that is the ultimate tragedy of this war- that kids are allowed to fear, but they are not allowed to dream. Dreams of a peace settlement, dreams of a prosperous Israel living beside a progressive Palestine. For the elders, that is mere fantasy. For the young, its the only thing that makes their lives worth living.

Stories and Power-Time for a scarey Rethink

More and more, I am coming to understand stories through the lens of power. We use to teach at that “the power of stories is the story of power.” But recent studies in how memory works show that this isn’t even the half of it.

It seems to work this way:

We live life and 99.9% gets forgotten-but some experiences get told as stories and these stories stock up our memories such that with every retelling, we create an experience that purports to be a re-experience of the  first experience-Sure!!!! I was there, I saw it happen, its not a story, its real, we say. In law courts, in relationships, at family reunions.

But our brain tricks us, because it knows- its an experience of the story- (think about it -past reality is lost to us in irretrievable time. The souvenir of Big Ben is not Big Ben.) Yet the more we retell, we more we feel we have somehow redeemed lost time and lost realities. (as Proust would say.) Stories are both resurrection and redemption.

The deeper the memory becomes, the more real it feels because every telling adds a new layer of  experiencing, one that adds the attention energy every new audience offers. We tell a story about what happened back when, but what we are after is what will happen right now-from our listeners- laughter, joy, congratulations, pity, outrage, admiration, an offer of marriage, a book contract even. The more we get the response we want, the truer the story becomes. If my audience are crying for what I had to endure, I must have had to endure it. Right? Makes sense.

Over time, the way the brain is rewired, we cannot tell the difference between the original experience and the experience we created through the story of “I remember when…” Think of the childhood memories you tell so well that later on, you realize you could not possibly  have been there to witness. “I remember well the devastating floods of 1947…. even though I was born in 1955.”

If experience gets translated into stories that create memories that work to present “recalled” experience as real and true, it can also work the other way.

Memories, even false memories can be translated into stories that  go on to create experiences that feel so vivid to be real and true, and trustworthy enough to act on. That can be as simple as telling our kids about the boogey man to inoculate them against going out in the dark alone. Or more dangerous stories about a kid “seducing” a white girl to incite a lynch mob, or about heroic Pat Tillman who wins a medal for valor against the enemy that killed him, when all along, the army knew it was friendly fire. It had to be true, they said, even when it wasn’t. We don’t kill our heroes.

Power becomes the art of telling the story so well that it feels real enough for people to believe, and trustworthy enough to act on, kill for, or go buy. The brain does not have enough discriminatory juices to determine a true story from one that feels to us like it has to be true. What we once believed about WMDs, Columbine, Mathew Sheppard’s murder, Jessica Lynch, Balloon boy, all proved to be largely fictions,  and all prove that some stories can make truth irrelevant. (Yes-Read that sentence again) How scarey is that? And what a recipe for a power grab!

Someone once said, stories are the lies we tell ourselves to make us feel the truth, but we have to face it, “true stories” is a contradiction. There is no “real story.”  Its the irony of the label non-fiction, which is an impossible claim, yet one we buy all the time.

Conclusion? Power is based on selective lying. The most believable/ feelable story is the one that makes the most triumphant truth claims, If we can tell ourselves a good enough story, we can basically reinvent reality.

Ooops. Have to go, the purple  pigs flying outside my window are making a racket because they are  being chased by my blue dinosaur. Did I forgot to feed Rex again?

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The common story strategy for Israel- Palestine’s struggle for peace and justice is to invite the sharing of the dual narratives. What one side calls “nakba” catastrophe, the other side calls Independence Day, and so on. Let these two voices speak- we are assured,  from their shared yet divided reality, to allow compassion to grow. Now that sounds so logical, but what if its dangerously naive, and largely a myth told by outsiders who, as facilitators, don’t have to relive any of the trauma?

What if the dual narratives are incompatible and part of the problem, not the solution? In a bitter divorce, there are dual narratives- does anyone say, let the two sides listen to one another and it will forge common ground? No way! Each side’s story is armed and dangerous, told to discredit and blame the other. Their stories of hate and betrayal only fuel the battle. Why would Israel and Palestine be any different?

NSL believes that the past can only divide us and only the future can unite us, if both sides own their shared responsibility NOW, for choosing to shape it differently. No matter our tortured history, what do we choose now? Otherwise, we let the present remain hostage to the past and the future no longer exists save as a pitiful replay of the past. That is the choice Abbas and Netanyahu are making now. Not peace or occupation but the past versus the future. The stakes could not be higher.

Stories are as dangerous as weapons-sometimes more so- they are never neutral. To invite the retelling of those stories of our greatest pain is to risk remaining united in hate. To share stories of “What if”, to work together on a program to create an alternative reality, to dream together about ways to heal and to innovate, opens the chance for being united in hope.

Fragile, yes, fleeting, yes, uncertain as to its lasting impact, for sure, but never underestimate what gives birth to hope, that slither of light that comes through that crack in the wall, one that suggests that things can be different, that another world can exist if we continue choosing to create it, as we are doing now on NSL.

Today, on the eve of selecting our next class,  we celebrate our fifth birthday. Team 2014 will notch up our 50th graduate. It may not seem a huge cohort, but class by class, year by year, the network of inspired and innovative change makers grows, until one day, that proverbial tipping point is reached, and the towers of the old world will come toppling down, to make way for a new world rising from the ashes. Happy Birthday NSL, and a candle each for all our amazing students and our supporters and families who have stuck by us.

And a special remembrance to Diane Halley, that inspired force of nature, alum of the Irish peace program we ran in 2001, tireless worker for human rights in Jerusalem and Ramallah, co-founder of NSL in 2009, and lost to us March 30th 2013, way too soon. We feel your presence Dee and promise to keep your legacy strong.

lets play the Story games of War

And what are the story games of war, you ask?

War is a story game that requires you and me
to play complimentary roles
You must play the role of My Enemy
In order for it to be meaningful for me to hate you or kill you and hurt you
and You need me to play the part of Your Enemy
In order for it to be meaningful for you to hate me or kill me and hurt me.

We must both ensure that our hating is backed up by enough evidence so it appears plausible and defensible, better still, inevitable, and best of all, honorable
To that end, I need to harvest as much hatred from your past with me
To prove you always hated me-
Ensure any news from your present proves you still hate me
and project in apocalyptic terms your future to show you will always hate me
You need to do the same-
harvest as much hatred from my past
to show I always hated you
Ensure all the news from my present proves I still hate you
and project in apocalyptic terms, my future to show that I will always hate you.

We must both be vigilant lest our ancient hates grow stale, and determine to constantly invent fresh incitements and provocations, true or false matters little,
Should the present be too lacking in drama,  or our people come
too close to falling in love with peace,
we must urgently evoke catastrophic scenarios that place us both on the edge.
If there is a strong move to build trust and negotiate,
or play the story games of peace or progress or the Future,
We both need to double down on all the stories
that keep the story game of war alive.

If the question of legitimacy arises, be sure we agree on the plan
that I deligitimise you so that you can more assertively claim your legitimacy
and you deligitimise me so that I can claim my legitimacy as a badge of honor
so that we can both argue the case, if we were not legitimate in the first place,
would they (you)  try so hard to deligitimise  us
and would we try so hard to deligitimise them (You)?

When it comes to Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, the amazing BDS,
Lets use that to keep the story fiery and controversial, and newly contested
so that you can claim that BDS is anti-semitic and a form of economic apartheid
and we can counter claim that BDS is a legitimate protest against an apartheid regime
That way we have the nice balance of you applying your own BDS movement to boycott our BDS movement and we keep a nice symmetry of mutual attacks and  echoing rebuttals, forming a contest to see who can insult each other more.

And while we are at it,  lets have fun making ultimatums and threatening walk outs and dissing anyone who gets close to helping us in constructive ways,
And be sure to follow your script that accuses us- “It is YOU who set pre-conditions.
We just want peace,”
so that allows us in turn to respond
“If YOU keep building settlements, how can you be serious about peace?”
and that way, our game can go on and on and on, as it has.
Maybe to mix it up, lets shift the terms in mid stream, We demand a Jewish State and right of return,  or you  yours a Sharia state and a right of escape,
and maybe renegotiate the negotiations as part of the negotiations that need to be renegotiated.

To make sure we can both benefit from our story games of war,
lets agree that we both need hapless rescuers who take our side and supply us all the sympathy we need to make them feel guilty enough to give us aid,
but let us be sure they are not too helpful lest they recognize our racket,
or realize how naive they are,
and lets re-enforce their moral indignation so that they serve
as an echo chamber of all our lies and intrigues, and are never tempted to think thoughts independent of our agendas or realize how easy they are to manipulate.

Lets be sure that we never let on that the real enemy is not you and me
but any  change that would take us off script.
We will agree to keep demanding change from the other side
and keep blaming the other side for not doing what we are not willing to do,
which allows you to call us hypocrites and we can call you terrorists,
and we can keep the world giving us free aid, bribing us to behave
even though we promise we will never behave enough
for them to put away their check books.

Lets agree that that any peace will be a bribe that works fairly for both of us
and never amounts to a serious commitment to end hostilities which would ruin our game.
Our payoff from the racket is that if the rest of the world cares,
the rest of the world pays,
and if the rest of the world gets madder and madder at us
They will care more and pay more. We both win by losing.

Because- lets face it, our poor little nations exist at the edge of nowhere, full of nobodies and anybodies, and our lot is to be swallowed up by swirling powers and empires.
Our story game of war makes us both feel at the center of global politics,
and people affirm us as their excuse to be terrorists and assassins, so
“We must matter!”
All this makes it imperative that we keep up our theater of threats and counter threats,
and occupation and betrayal to keep the world on edge.

For us, the alternative to war is not peace but being forgotten,
even worse, becoming nobodies, and worst of all, exposed as shysters,
Where else would a Secretary of State spend two years solid, begging us to keep talking
and offering us incentives, or a Pope plan a huge visit, or UN resolutions that go on for days.  These prove our story game of war is working for us,  and is the incentive to keep inventing newer versions called Oslo III or Camp David Redux or Road Maps to Nowhere.

Our biggest fear, as trusted enemies that we are, is that once we make peace, We will both have made nations at the cost of having fallen off the map. We would both rather risk being despised than being forgotten and negotiators never get that.


In our work in the Middle East, we come at the world through the lens of story and a firm belief that there are other ways to change the world than raw politics and bluster of threats and counter threats.

We hear the slogans of End Child Poverty, End Pollution or End Terror, as in the War on Terror. They are cliches. From the point of view of narrative psychology, a story to end something only summons terminal energy- What happens after you end something? The real work is about beginning something else. If we can end X, what is the Y we are beginning. That makes for a far more compelling story. The slogan we hear most in our work is End the Occupation. Its a fair plea but it is a story that success will kill. It is so much more than ending something. One has to end the occupation as the first step to freeing a people to be able to build a nation of their own.

The same could be for Peace Talks or Peace Deals- if you want to know the dynamism of this word ” peace”, go to a funeral- We say Rest In Peace. Peace is a low energy story, unless it is part of a bigger story, such as Building a Future, or Progress, or Human Rights, or Freedom or Democracy, even Happiness- These are far more compelling titles to peace.

This way of thinking got us musing about the controversy over BDS, Boycott and Divestment and Sanction, that one side interpret as an attack, and the other as their weapon to force change. Any parent knows that if you keep catching your kid doing the wrong thing, you soon become the ogre. You have to use positive re-enforcement as much as if not more than punishment. So what about a new campaign that uses the insight of how a story of change works and how to build the energy of initiative, not termination.

We might call it AIR which stands for Affirm, Invest and Reward. Any persons or any actions or any policies that we believe further the path to a better future, we affirm, and we focus on investing in the businesses that employ and train young people and build capital, and we reward behaviors that we believe work for the future. The supporters of BDS claim that their way is non-violent, but what makes it controversial to many is the underlying intent- to deny access or investment as a means to force change. We are taking something away, not adding anything. BDS Supporters point to South Africa as their model, but South Africa had the ANC and Mandela working for change within.  Embargoes and boycotts fit what we call  the story game of war– economic war, tariff war, trade war. We know that story from how Japan got provoked into more aggression in World War 2.  It may work, and it may be the only effective strategy a David has against a Goliath. But what if there was another way? Is it worth exploring?

What if the new story became Affirm, Invest and Reward? What a difference that might make? It certainly is a new story. I can surely get mad at you from blocking me, but if your choices are not about attacking me but about living your values and exercising your rightful preferences about where you invest, what you buy, and who you support? Then what is the objection? What if doing right doesn’t always have to start a fight?

In the fallout from what may be another failed negotiation, the BDS drums will beat ever louder and the forces that will want to discredit it, silence it, boycott it ( with a certain irony) will grow ever louder.  The conflict will endure another chapter of mindless controversy. Perhaps the best way to respond is not to respond at all. Just simply say people are exercising their liberties.  Its a free country. people can affirm, invest and reward as they see fit. That surely is what BDS is meant to demonstrate anyway, when the fog of war clears.

What the Palestinian children said to Pope Francis

Mohammad said:

“We Palestinian Christians and Muslims believe in one God, who created the world, and we were created not to fight and be divided but to be united. We children of Palestine have not lost hope for the future, and your visit to Bethlehem strengthens our feeling that we must have peace even though we are living under the oppressive occupation of our country. We appreciate all the values you represent, and we would like to live in peace and dignity in our land and our country. ”

And in reply, the Pope said

“Remember that violence cannot be defeated by violence; violence can only be defeated with peace — with peace, effort and dignity to move the nation forward. I understand what you are telling me and the message you are giving me. Don’t ever allow the past to determine your life, always look forward. But do and act and strive for the things you want.”


I am becoming more and more patient with my impatience,
and more and more tolerant of my intolerance,
more and more forgiving of my unforgiving ways….

not sure what that means.
is this self compassion finally breaking through?
Am I finally gaining wisdom?
Or is it I am just too tired to care anymore.

Maybe its me, maybe I am getting older, but when you have lots of time, being patient comes easy. But getting older means you know your time is limited and less and less are you willing to sit around to endure endless meetings or hollow events or pursue concerns that seem frivolous or irrelevant to the main concern. We realize at some point that we have to make the main thing the main thing.

What does that board meeting matter in the final wrap up of eternity. Will the eternal auditor in the sky be asking you- what was that $113.46 cents spent on in September? Do you have a receipt and was it in the budget? Why didn’t you use the generic brand?

At some later point, we come to understand that its not lack of money or lack of friends or lack of opportunity that casts the greatest shadow over our lives, its the lack of time- the one thing we know infallibly that we will run out of, and the one thing we seem to so be so profligate in wasting- on so many concerns that don’t matter and perhaps will never matter.

Then somehow  a fiercer force arises from deep within us, not out of impatience or boredom but out of the singular defense of time, my time, your time, everyone’s time. No one has a right to waste anyone else’s time. To show up late, to come unprepared, to indulge in distracting side conversations, perhaps at one point in our lives are unavoidable irritations but at some point, they becomes crimes against humanity, because what they take away can never be won back.

When you die, OK, we have eternity, God’s time and he took 14 billions years to make life on earth. He can relax, but us poor humans, all we get if we are lucky is 50 or 70 or 90 years. No time to shake a galaxy loose or have a big bang- No, yet enough time to know what time is for and to live so that we are not merely marking time, but making sure it counts.

Re-interpreting Karl Marx’s Interpretation- Memo to Presidential Candidates

It is one of those quotable quotes- “that philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” It looks good on a T-shirt and a bumper sticker, and its too clever by half. The irony of course, is that this interpretation of philosophers interpreting the world is also an interpretation.

The sleight of hand is to make you think that changing the world is different from changing what the world means. Yet, what great minds like Marx or Freud or Darwin do is not that much in terms of  heroic action. Take a voyage to the Galapagos Islands  and come home and write a book- see women with various forms of hysteria and write a case study, study the economies of the industrializing world at the British Library, and write a few hefty tomes- Yes, Marx does change the world but he changes it by seeing it through a different lens, understanding it as a hidden process of consciousness and liberation, and therefore ripe for revolution. He did what any good philosopher does, reinterpret the world, and thereby he changed it. He makes his own saying into a lie.

Nothing helps change more than the story that we invent that tells us that we are on the brink of it, or that  it is urgent because things are broken and desperate. Sound familiar? Washington is broken. Wall Street is running the show. Government is corrupt and bloated. Its what narrative practitioners so enjoy about any election year- that the headlines of any or all of the candidates echo the cliches that are as old as Plato and as hackneyed as Jefferson and Hamilton. Imagine a candidate saying, “Nothing needs to change, that we are changing too much, that we need to get back to what we used to do in the 1950′s.”   Won’t happen.

To change the world is the reverse of what Marx said because it means changing how we interpret it, just as he did.  If we, like him, interpret it as  ripe for change, and we convince people that we are reading history right, we too can muster the masses to our cause.

Finally, this might make a good memo to the Presidential Candidates for 2016- if you want to change the world, help us change the way we see it. Don’t pander to our lazy habits of mind that don’t want to think too hard about the hard issues. Stop feeding our messianic delusions  by promising that you and only you can save us from Mexicans, Martians and Marxists. You might not change our hearts, but why not at least try changing our minds.

Can you Live from a Deeper place in your Story?

Last night, Ahmed,  the newest member of my international family told me about“What he really, really, really wanted.” and referenced an earlier conversation we had had when we were discussing his career and study plans. It made me think back to how that exercise arose out of what we considered to be the engine of a story.

At we describe a story as something whose engine is DESIRE and whose Fuel is both DREAM and MEMORY. We use this as a way of getting a handle on different kinds of stories and how they measure up.  Inspired by Ahmed, lets have some fun applying it.


If the engine of story is DESIRE, then one can immediately see how some stories fall apart  even before they start, because they have no engine, or their engine is way too small to carry the load of their dreams and ambitions. We live from the surface, and our desire never gets attached to anything bigger than the daily pleasures, or the desire to avoid any pain. Its a low risk life, and .one that perhaps is committed to the status quo. How then can we break through the surface and discover that every life entertains the possibility of greater desires? A bigger and richer story?

What I do is keep asking the question. “What do you want?” and after the first answer, treat it as a first draft, and ask again, “What do you really want?” and take the second answer as an exploration, and ask again, “What do you really really want?” and then, regardless of what comes out, to finally go for ground zero, “OK, sure, but come on, what do you really, really, really want?” When I do it for others or try it on myself when I feel my story is stuck, I am always surprised at what I knew all the time, but didn’t bother to tell myself.

Try it for yourself.

What do you really want? If you have not discovered your deeper desires, you can hardly discover your bigger story.