Privacy, sharing, and the role of storytelling

Earlier this week, on my Facebook page, I asked for your advice regarding the sharing of personal stories in order to relay a message or impart an important lesson. Thank you for your insights, both in the comments below the post, and in private. This question stemmed from my personal contemplation of my role as a guide who does not enjoy discussing her personal life in an open manner. I am not overly concerned about judgment, though to deny it entirely would also be false. I simply do not feel that oversharing serves an effective purpose. Instead, I feel it detracts from the experience of the learner. It has always been my opinion that the role of a guide – whether a yoga instructor or another type of mentor – is to create an experience for the learners that will allow them to explore their own experience. For that reason, I also feel that there should be certain boundaries between the client and the guide.

My favourite and most respected guides and mentors, the ones from whom I have learned and continue to learn, have been people who observe healthy limits, who share bits of stories without revealing too much, never creating gratuitous drama in the interest of shocking the public. Instead, the focus of their stories has always returned to the students seated before them, inviting those students to engage in self-exploration in order to find the answer within. The teacher is important, but the teacher’s story must never play the central role.

Then, two days ago, my worldview was rattled when my grandmother, who has always been very private about her own traumatic story of survival in a concentration camp in Germany, chose to share that story with the online world. Allow me to provide some background. I first heard a PG version of my grandmother’s account of survival during WWII when I was about six years old. My mom told me that Babushka bears a number on her arm because in childhood, she was taken away from home and held in a prison-type camp. At the time, I didn’t understand what my grandmother had done to deserve such treatment. What, indeed. With the passing years, my grandmother revealed to me additional horrific details of her experience and one day, when I was 20 years old, seated at my parents’ kitchen table, helping my grandmother to prepare dinner, she asked me to promise her to never share those details with anyone outside our family. Family stories must stay within the family, she spoke sternly. I kept my promise.

Yet, she wrote her story, in her own honest, direct words, sharing it on Facebook. I asked myself why she would choose to share her story after all these years, having always been so private about her life. Granted, she has previously spoken to groups of students about her experience, and even attended a symposium in Germany, sharing her story on stage in front of a large audience. Nonetheless, reading her words on the internet felt somehow raw, revealing. I have not yet had a chance to speak with my grandmother, to ask her why she chose to tell one small part of her story, but I have my speculations, one of which is that these stories must be told to pass on the lessons of tolerance, compassion, love, and the dangers of ignorance, of separation and segregation. The comments that she received below the post, from relatives, were affirming, thanking her for writing so candidly, for sharing with us details that are becoming lost with the survivors.

We write because it allows us to heal. The writing and speaking of our words, previously hidden beneath many layers, is cathartic. The alchemy of this sharing penetrates even deeper into the hearts of our readers and listeners as it emerges from beneath our own layers. To me, this process is raw, painful, and leaves me standing naked before a crowd, awaiting judgment. Yet, the pain of holding onto the story without sharing it is even greater. In fact, it is starting to feel risky. Within many traditions, storytelling has been central to learning.

I do not yet have the answer of how we can go about delivering an important lesson to our clients, students, and readers by sharing but without exposing too much. How can we share just enough, allowing the healing to occur while holding onto certain parts of the story that feel too private, too close to our hearts? Moreover, why is it that some of us feel the need to protect those private stories and identities while others seem to want to shout them from the rooftops? A few questions have been answered but I am left with new ones to ponder. While I continue to hold onto the notion that the teacher’s story must never be the focal point of a lesson, it is often an important method of launching into an open dialogue that fosters personal exploration within the students, shaping our future and inspiring the broader community.

Would you like to contribute to this discussion? Do you have a personal theory to share regarding storytelling and the importance of communicating our lessons through written and spoken stories? Please leave a comment below. Thank you, as always, for sharing this blog with a friend.  

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