By Chris Chittenden
Do you remember being very young and listening in rapt attention as your mother or father read or told you stories about crocodiles, dogs, people and any number of, what at the time, were exciting characters? We often think of stories in this way - the things we read in books or see at the movies. However, stories play a much bigger part in our life, indeed they can be seen as central to being human.
Part of our claim about human beings is that we live in language. What we mean by this is human beings live in a world where we are constantly in conversation with ourselves and others. As a result, we use language as the key means of making sense of the world. We observe phenomena and then try to explain them. In other words, we develop stories about what we see. We all do it and spend our whole life doing it.
By and large these stories are transparent to us. We do not see that we have created a story about a phenomenon so that it makes sense to us, rather we believe the story is the phenomenon. "So what", you might say, "What has this got to do with anything?". Well let us look at an example.
There is a well known story about Sir Isaac Newton, the famous 17th century scientist. One day he was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head. Isaac Newton developed a story about this phenomenon. He called it "gravity". Isaac Newton's story about gravity with all its theories and formulas was well excepted for over two hundred years. This story allowed human beings to develop many wonderful machines to take care of some of the drudgery of life and also to enhance our pleasure of it. But ultimately that story hit a snag. Physicists started to observe phenomena that did not fit with Newton's story about gravity. In order to make sense of their observations, they needed to develop a new story. This new story allowed for new invention and provided us with the vehicles to take us into space amongst other things. This is not to say that Newton's story lost its value completely, just that it had limited application.
This example shows us the value of stories in life but also the limitations those stories impose. The stories that we hold about something create a space for us in which to live. Our stories colour the way we observe the world and also provide us with the context to make sense of the world. In our interpretation, there are no right or wrong stories. Rather we see our stories as more or less "powerful", given that "power" is defined as the ability to generate effective action. Out of Newton's story of gravity, we were able to build a steam engine but not fly to the moon. That required a more powerful story.
We have stories about everything - situations, other people, ourselves. You name it, we will have a story about it. Most of the stories you and I hold about the world are transparent to us, particularly the ones we hold about ourselves. Because we do not see our stories for what they are, we are limited in the actions we can take to the confines of those stories. Now your stories may well be very powerful ones for you, but often we hang on to the story about something or someone even when the phenomena changes. When this occurs, we may well find ourselves still confined to taking actions that are no longer as effective as they once were and not getting the results we desire. When things are not going as well as you would like, it may well be very valuable to not just questions your actions, but to question your story about the situation.
One of our teachers, Julio Olalla, calls coaches, "story-busters". Most of us are blind to our stories such that we cannot see them by ourselves. Skilled ontological coaches are adept at observing their coachee's stories and breaking the transparency about them to bring them into question, thereby opening up new possibilities in life.
© 2002 Chris Chittenden