Storylistening and the Covid-19 Pandemic

It’s Saturday, March 14th. I’ve been traveling for the past nine days, from Lisbon to San Diego by way of London and Los Angeles. At the moment I’m visiting a friend in Orange County, California. From the balcony I look out across the upscale community, an enclave of posh condos and apartments intermixed with office buildings built of glass, steel and stone. Patchy gray clouds drift above the rain soaked streets as the occasional BMW or Tesla zips by below. (This is quite different from my lifestyle in Portugal, but the world comes in many variations.)

Apartment Balcony View Orange County

It’s a peaceful day, and it’s obvious that folks live rather well in this part of the world. But the world has changed radically in recent days as Covid-19, Coronavirus as it’s commonly called, has been rewriting life for everyone, even those who are accustomed to the pleasurable stories that money can conveniently purchase. Write a check, problem solved, life is good.

But Covid-19 is something of an equalizer. If you spend time with someone who is infected with the virus, whether they have obvious symptoms or not, you may be the next in line for a trip to the hospital, or spending a few weeks under self-quarantine. You can’t bribe a virus, or hire a bodyguard to protect you. A virus just doesn’t care. Your behavior will write your story.

Woman Wearing Face Mask Coronavirus Covid-19

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

With large gatherings now banned and the sports industry on hold, it’s no surprise that more people are turning to social media to stay connected with friends and family. It’s a time for personal storytelling, and an opportunity for heartfelt storylistening. A time for empathy and solidarity, for sharing and understanding.

And I’m seeing a lot of that, thankfully, as friends and strangers band together to weather the viral storm with offers of help for those who are under quarantine, or who are at risk and don’t want to venture out. But sadly there are voices out there claiming the situation is a hoax, or is being overblown, even as the infection rate soars and the deaths mount daily.

That’s why it’s important during such times to continue our storytelling, so that others know what is actually happening. But just as important, we should spend more time storylistening. Listening to the stories of those who are affected, listening to the scientific and social experts (not the politicians) who understand the complexities of how this virus is spreading, how it’s impacting individuals, and how those effects ripple out through all societies.

Group Taking Selfie

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By sharing stories we gain a better understanding of the issues that each of us is having to deal with, and by do so we become more empathetic toward others, especially those at great distance. It’s about the old adage of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, of thinking about what they must be going through, and how that situation would feel if it were us.

It’s also about recognizing that we will never know the whole story. That there are unknown elements in play that can further complicate the narrative. If we’re in dialogue, then we have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions, and I encourage you to do so, but if not, if you’re just reading, hearing or watching someone’s story, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t assume.

Though we don’t know when, life will ultimately return to some sense of normalcy, and when it does, we can take more group hug selfies. Until then, be safe, and listen to the stories that manifest from these difficult times. It has the potential to change us, and thus, humanity.

Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.

The Secret that Almost Killed Me – Kirsten Johnson at TEDxSDSU

Students that enroll in my Storytelling with Impact course at UC San Diego Extension are generally looking to improve their storytelling and public speaking skills, but one of my students had been accepted to speak at TEDxSDSU 2018 (held at San Diego State University) and she had a specific goal in mind – crafting a narrative for her upcoming TEDx Talk.

Right up my alley, I thought, as my work with TEDxSanDiego and TEDxDonovanCorrectional involves coaching speakers for the TEDx stage, and other clients have given TEDx Talks.

But this was special, as Kirsten wanted to discuss a personal issue that is never easy in front of an audience – her experience with sexual assault, and the resulting trauma that negatively affected her life for years – all the more important as she was speaking on a college campus.

As she worked through each draft of her talk and rehearsed in class, the discussions varied between “how much to tell” and “which narrative to use”. To her credit, Kirsten wasn’t afraid to experiment, to see what felt right, and to revise accordingly. Not saying enough could come off as lacking in depth, glossing over important topics, while providing too much detail could turn off an audience. This is the reality of delivering a talk with an emotional core.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure which version of her talk would end up on the TEDxSDSU stage, as she was still revising after our class had ended, but I was pleased to see how she presented this difficult subject – with heartfelt passion and resolve – to an audience that needed to hear about her experience and the lessons she learned along the way.

Kirsten Johnson is a life coach, YouTuber and author of the upcoming book Elephant. Johnson makes videos on anxiety, addiction, shame, spirituality and living your life purpose. She is also the creator of The Elephant Heard, an online community composed of people rising up to their full potential after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Kristen is passionate about teaching people how to transform their relationship with fear so that they can live an empowered life.