G David Schwartz

Posted on April 7, 2011

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Favorite Stories

Victor had dispensed the drinks and, standing in front of his guests, called over the chatter. “Tonight’s meeting of the Thursday Club will be a little different.”

People began to quiet down and listen. He continued, “Since we are meeting at my house, rather than each of us summarizing and discussing a pre-chosen article, I had called each of you early last week and asked you to tell me your favorite story. I have written these stories down, and now ask you to tell everyone else assembled here today.

“Yeah,” Beth wanted to know, “Why did you write our stories down?”

“An interesting question, Beth,” Victor replied as he stirred his White Russian. “It’s interesting because instead of asking why we are telling stories, you want to know why we first wrote them.”

“That’s right,” Beth said, “The idea of listening to stories instead of racking my brain trying to get an insight into one of the obscure papers some of you guys choose to discuss every month was really appealing.”

“Well, okay. A fair statement. But I wanted to get your favorite story on paper so you would not have a chance to change your mind about which story in all the whole wide world was really your favorite.” Victor smiled, a cunning smile.

“What are you saying, Vic,” the usually quite Paul spoke, “Are we so fickle that we would change our favorite anything?”

Joe chuckled. “Yeah, sure. Like our favorite food is prime beef, but invited to a great French restaurant we suddenly have an overwhelming desire for hamburger.”

“Uhh, beef!” Maggie made a face.

“I think my intention will prove to be wise,” Victor responded. “I think it will be the case that once we hear the favorite tales of others, we will remember other stories which raise to consciousness. It’s not the case that what we call our favorite will be shown not to be the best we could utter, but that another will spring to mind which we may want to investigate in a public discourse.”

“I hate it when the psychologists lead the group,” someone said. Everyone laughed. You see, everyone who belonged to the Thursday group was a psychologist of one school or another.

Tony offered the following insight: “I think Victor has hit on a splendid idea. We may learn more about ourselves by hearing our own as well as the stories of others than we would going on like we have been going. I mean, after all, how often can we read texts resembling the Rhetoric of Aristotle and plummet the text for psychoanalytic insight? Or last month! How often do we want to compare and contrast William Blake and Jacques Lacan, turning the one into a poet, and the other into a psychologist. Impossible! I had a headache for a week.”

“I happen to like Lacan,” Tonya offered.

“Ever notice that Tonya never says anything unless Tony speaks first, and then everything she says is a refutation of his argument?” Maggie whispered sufficiently loud for all to hear. “Every single time.” This won her a dirty look from Tonya.

“Well, let’s test it,” Victor said, “Anyone need a re-fill?”

No one did.

“Okay, like usual, let’s just go around the room. Joe?”

Joe straightened in his chair, “Well… Like I told you the other day, this was a more difficult assignment than it first appeared. Depending on my mood, I might have a different story that says what I want it to say.”

“That says what you want it to say?” Paul queried.

“Sure. If I’m going to remember something, I am not going to remember it because of what you want it to say, am I?”

“But you did tell me a story, didn’t you?”

“Of course. You pressed me until I did.”

“Now, refresh my memory, what reason did you give for the story you finally picked out?”

“I think because my favorite story of all times has this subtle ambiguity about it. While the story certainly seems to express at least one of my values, I have a suspicion, which I have never been able to work out, that there is more going on in the story than I think.”

“Tell the story, Joe.”

“Okay. It goes like this. Two Buddhist monks were walking down the road having an animate conversation. When they came to the river, they saw a village girl standing at the banks weeping. The first monk says to her, ‘What is the cause of these particular tears?’ The girl tells him that she must get across the river because her family, or her husband, or something is on the other side.”

“And do you find this ‘something’ on the ‘other side’ significant?” Beth challenged.

“No interruptions,” Victor reprimanded.

“So,” continued Joe, “She has to get to the other side of the river, but explains to the monk that the ferry was taken up river for repair and would not be in commission for a number of weeks. The first monk explains that it not a problem, puts her on his back, and carries her across the river. When the two monks are alone again, they walk for some time in silence. Finally, the first monk turns to the second and says, ‘Friend, something bothers you.’ The second monk says, ‘Friend, you carried that woman across the river. You know it is forbidden for us to touch women.’ The first monk says, ‘Is that all that’s bothering you? Friend, I put the woman down back at the river. Are you still carrying her around?'”

“That story has to do with the break-up of your marriage, doesn’t it?” Tony wanted to know. “Oh, shut up,” said Tonya.

“I agree,” Victor mediated. “We don’t want this session to degenerate into any embarrassing probing, do we?”

“No,” said Maggie ironically, “We certainly do not want to do analysis.”

“I’ll respond to Tony. No, it does not. I have loved this story since before I ever met Sally. It’s just a great story.”

“Yeah, a great story. I agree,” said Beth. “But your great story called it into consciousness more frequently than any other, and, second, the one which says the most to you. Is the most edifying, I suppose. But third, you suggest it is the one, which is most enigmatic to you. Mathematically, you are saying that B is equivalent to not-C and, analogously, C is equivalent to not-B. I find it difficult to find where you derive the satisfaction of knowing it is a great story. Can you explain?”

“I cannot,” said Joe, “But part of the reason I cannot is that I have not a clue that you are talking about. I do not understand this story, and I venture to claim that no one understands stories, on a logical level. It is not the case that we are dealing with, or should be dealing with, a fully formed cognitive structure. Nor do we understand precisely on an emotive level. Which is the reason stories are great. I noticed,” he took a moment to sip his Chablis, “that in the process of telling the story I made some seemingly insignificant changes. Nevertheless, I risked changing the ultimate meaning of the story. I wonder if stories have an ultimate meaning? Or are they structured avenues towards structureless reasoning? You know what I mean?” Joe looked around the room. No one gave any indication of responding to him. He chuckled and said, “Well, no, because if I am
correct, you can neither agree or disagree. That’s not the point of stories. How do you disagree or argue with a tale? You can’t! Stories are a means of pulling up significant emotive states and tending toward an epistemological attitude. I should just say ‘attitude.’ Epistemology has little to do with the telling of tales. What we do when we remember or re-tell stories is share an attitudinal
perspective. Don’t you think?”

The group nodded a general agreement, but each made remarks between themselves to the effect that they wanted more time to think about Joe’s remark.

Victor turned to Maggie. “You’re next.”

Maggie wrinkled her brow and wiped invisible perspiration from her forehead. “I’m a little ashamed to go after that really good story Joe told. My story is more, well, stupid.”

“No it’s not,” Victor reassured her.

“It is, really. I read it in an anthology of Holocaust writings. It has stuck with me ever since. I have found it haunting, without knowing why, exactly. Rationally, I know the scene depicted is nonsense. This is disconcerting because, as you know, professionally I tell my patients that every story is significant. And I really believe that to be the case. But I think Joe put his finger on it when he said that the story not only explains, but is ambiguous. There’s something more going on here than, first, the story being told, or second, what I am willing to make of the story. To answer Paul, again, every story seems to tell me what it wants to say, or what its’ originators wanted it to say, but I remember stories not only because of what they say, but specifically what they say to me. If, like Joe says, I change some subtle aspect of the story, the reason must be because I am making it say something different. I pass my stories on, but pass on a different structure. I pass on something, if you will, of myself.”

“Tell the story, Maggie.”

“It’s short, really. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder to the Hasidic movement, appeared at a mass grave site. All the dead reached out to touch the hem of his garment. That’s the whole story. You know,” she shook a chill from her shoulders, “when I tell it out loud, it sounds morbid.”

“It’s not morbid at all,” Joe said thoughtfully. “It is haunting, yes, but I can certainly understand your story speaking to concerns you have, concerns we all have. It’s touching, really.”

“Thank you, Joe.”

“Thank you for sharing that story.”

“Yes,” Victor agreed, then nodded to Beth.

“I find it interesting that Joe and Maggie can agree that each of their stories were important to each others. But Joe’s was a story of non-attachment, and Maggie’s was one of attachment even after death.”

“That is not a fair interpretation,” Tony said.

“For once I agree with Tony,” said Tonya.

“Thank you, Tonya. And may I observe that you are correct.” A chuckle went around the room. Tony waiting for it to die out before continuing, “You are confusing attachment with extension.”

Tonya nearly jumped from her seat, crying, “No, that’s not the problem. You are so abstract sometimes. The problem is confusing one culture with another. The point of both stories seems rather to be that there is a diversity of getting where one wants to arrive, whether across the flowing river or across the great imaginary divide.”

“And you call me oblique!”

“Abstract,” Tonya corrected, “But perhaps I did say that wrong. The unity of the stories is, well, to put it simply, that they are talking about people. Now I know what you’re going to say. Even Aesop’s animal stories talked about people. But, I think these two stories talk about what people share deeply as value. Good values, bad values kind of thing. There is the good monk and the petty monk, the good, I don’t know, showing of the Baal Shem and the implied no-showing…”

“Naw; too Christian,” Tony called.

“But these two stories balance themselves, so to speak, on what the participants wanted. The girl wanted across the river. The monk wanted to help her. The second monk wanted correct observance of the rules of the order. The Baal Shem wanted to investigate the carnage. The victims wanted explanations and, if I heard the story correctly, there was only a reaching, not a touching; there was only the question and not the answer. Sometimes this, too, is important and needs be said. No; not even said, but certainly implied. We tell our patient, ‘Your questions is justified. Your query for answers is certainly right. But there is no answer. There is no answer.'” Tony said, “That is morbid.” A nervous laugh resulted.

“Well, Beth, tell your story so we can now turn on you.”

Beth laughed. “Okay. Mine is less a story, really, than a joke. As a matter of fact…” she threw her hands up as if to indicate the hopelessness of discovering the genesis of her selection, “…it may even be something I overheard one day, or something a patient told me. Who knows? Well, the question was raised about how people accept others into their religious tradition, or how family members feel about people who convert out of a tradition. Someone said that Jews in fact baptize converts, although they do not call it baptism. The question was asked whether they baptize them into or out of Judaism. The answer was ‘Both, but the converts from Judaism we just hold under.”

The room became hysterical. When they finished laughing everyone had a comment: “Good joke. Good joke.” “You see, jokes are like stories. They tell a serious point.” “Yes, I agree. That was funny.” “They raise memories; they raise consciousness. And they are entertaining.” “Further, jokes are shorter than stories, usually, and they cause others to associate other jokes, similar ‘types’ more quickly.” “Tell another one, Beth. Tell another.”

“No, no. C’mon, now. Let’s move on. Tonya you’re next.”

“Hey, Victor, how do you expect her to speak? Tony hasn’t said anything yet,” Maggie said.

“Just ignore her, Tonya. What is your story?”

“The stories so far seem so public and yet also personal. Mine is not simply personal, but private, really. I have thought about this story since you asked for it a last week, and I have come to believe that if I worked at it for several years I might succeed in making it enigmatic, perhaps even symbolic. But the way it stands right now, it’s just personal.”

“Oh, boy; oh, boy,” Tony rubbed his hands together, “This is where it gets interesting.”

“No. Not really. It involves a boy who ran away from home. He walked across the city, finally finding his way to his father’s house. You see, his father and mother were divorced.”

“And he lived with his mother?”

“Yes. The whole time he was walking his feet were becoming more and more blistered and painful. But he refused to stop. He had to walk through a bad neighborhood. The whole time he was walking he kept telling himself how brave he was, how his feet were his only savior. He’d say things like, ‘My feet are dependable,’ and ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow, I shall fear nothing.’ Then he arrived at his fathers’ house, but his father wasn’t home. Since he had a key, he walked in. It became very late, and his father did not return. He heard a noise outside, and went to investigate. As he looked out, the blinds prevented him from seeing, but he looked down toward the bottom of the window. He saw his own bare feet reflected, just shards, a severed pair of feet, and became extremely scared.”

“That sounds like a reasonable reaction to me. Look out a window and see nothing but a feet standing there. I’d be scared.”

“But these were the feet which he had that whole day praised as his reliable saviors. They were proven. They were his preservers, his rescuers. He thought them trustworthy. Suddenly they turned on him, scared him.”

The others were silent with Tonya. The hush was broken only when Victor turned to Paul and indicated that he should begin.

“I read this story once, but don’t remember who wrote it. It seems the Messiah wanted to check things out before coming to earth to establish his reign. The Messiah chose the form of a fly to visit, thinking he would be inconspicuous and could go where ever he wanted.”

“What makes you think the Messiah is a male?” Beth wanted to know. Paul ignored her and continued: “So the Messiah went into a certain man’s house who was famous for complaining that the Messiah should come, already. Just arrive, will ya? The man was there, lamenting as usual, saw the fly, and killed it with a fly swatter. That’s it. That’s the story.”

“Huh,” Tony said, “So that explains it.”

“Yeah,” Tonya said, “Like the Messiah could be a fly.”

“Tony, you’re next and I’ll go last.”

“Okay. Well, mine, too, is not a story really, but just some things I have read about two fairly famous people. As diverse as they were in their lives and their thought, both Sigmund Freud…”

“Oy,” someone said.

“…and Franz Rosenzweig were afflicted with painful diseases in their last days. Rosenzweig was actually paralyzed. He could only communicate with this devise he rigged up for moving letters around. And Freud had had several operations for cancer of the jaw, and was frequently in pain. Nevertheless, neither of them allowed their suffering to prevent them from working, or continuing with their lives. Neither gave up. Like I said, it’s not really a story. But if I had to choose one image to pass on to my children, this would be it. Don’t let suffering prevent you from living. You can’t ignore it, that’s true. But don’t submit.”

“Do you think it important to pass your stories on to your children?”

The general opinion was that it was. “Why else tell them?” Tonya asked. “If they were not important to be passed on, we might just as well explain them to ourselves quietly.”

“Well, Victor. It’s your turn.”

“I’m afraid your going to be disappointed.”

“No, Vic, never. We could never be disappointed with anything you are involved with.”

“Okay. Here goes. I thought to myself, what story do I have which means something to me. What story did I have that I wanted to tell, which would signify what was important to me, and what I thought was worth repeating for all times; you know, tell my children and stuff.”

“And did you come up with one?” Beth asked, “Or did you decide just to preface a story until we all got tired and went home?”

“Truth? A compromise of sorts. Here’s my favorite story.

Once there was this group of friendly people who got together on the first Thursday of every month to investigate whatever the host of the evening thought would be an interesting topic. One day, one September day, the host was to be a guy who thought it would be interesting to hear everyone else’s’ favorite stories. So they got together…”

“Ahh, damn. He’s conning us,” Tony said.

“No; I’m not. I’m telling what is important to me. But let me go on, okay. So these are the stories they told.” Victor repeated each of their stories, occasionally mentioning some of the discussion, which preceded and followed the original telling. Truth is, he lost his listeners. After all, they had just heard these stories, and did not understand why Victor was retelling the stories of other people. Nevertheless, they did not interrupt. When he was finished, Tonya asked the point of his “story.”

“Tonya, I would have thought you, of all people, would have understood. Each week we pick out something one of us has read or wants to read, and he or she is literally the center of attention. In this ploy, I made you each the center of attention, yet your diverse centralities served to create my story. Neat, huh?”

“That’s one word for it.”

“I feel cheated,” Tony said. “Where is the meat of the evening? Where is the ego-centric discussion.”

“That’s the great part, Tony. There is no ego in these stories. Most of them did not come from us, and most of them do not stay with us.”

“Oh, that is neat, Victor. You’re implying there is a little hint of eternity in every story told.”

“I hadn’t thought of that, Beth, but now that you said so, I would agree. Several of us have mentioned that these stories keep recurring to us, or we keep going back to them for one reason or another, yet they do not get boring.”

“None except yours, Victor,” Tony laughed.

“Thank you, my friend. It’s also interesting how each of us gave a little preface about why they chose their story. Everyone said where they received the story, or why they were telling the story. It was like we were trying to plug ourselves into that eternal cycle. Don’t you think?”

“Led into eternity through the infinity of words,” Maggie said.

“Becoming hero’s to ourselves through words from before our time,” Beth added.

“You know what I found notable?” Tony asked.

“No, but I’m sure you will tell us,” Tonya replied.

“At the beginning we began telling stories and commenting upon them. The more stories we told, the more diverse they became. Yet the more diverse they became the less we had to say about them. This cannot have been because we were confused at the diversity. I
think instead it was because as we extended the idea of what we were willing to accept as a story, the more at home we became in the medium we were, in a sense, in the very process of defining.”

“I think it was because comments became less applicable. The essential comments we could have made, which we did not articulate, but perhaps conjured, these essential comments became applicable to all the forms of story we presented.”

“Egolessly presented!”

“Egolessly, but each climbing aboard our own ego distinctions and need. You must admit that, at least.”

“I think each of these stories ennobled us.”

“Ennobled, but not empowered.”

“Yes, the individual stories ennobled each of us both individually as tellers, and individually as listeners and…”

“…and thirdly, as a group.”

“As a group of interested listeners.”

“They seemed to encapsulate our heritages, whether of tradition or personality.”

“Oh, good. At least we do not have the same personality, right Tonya?”

“Not yet anyway!”

“Oh, God, what a thought.”

“You’re right. The stories seemed to define us.”

“They tell who were are, but do they tell only ourselves?”

“I don’t think they even tell who were are. Look, if we investigate any particular story to discover who the teller was, that is impossible. Like, the monks Joe talked about. Can we analyze that story to find out who Joe is?”

“He’s a Buddhist monk. Isn’t that clear?”

“But that is precisely my point. Joe is not a Buddhist monk. How can we look upon an obviously culture excruciated story which has in the background Siddhartha, enlightenment, bald headed priests, and the like, and think we will find out anything about unpriestly, hairy, unenlightened ‘Joe’?”

“Because these stories all come out of the same malt of life?”

“Which is … what? Ego formation?”

“How do you express the inexpressible?”

“I would say, ‘expressionlessly.'”

“Yeah, you would!”

“The sound of one hand…”

“You are undermining our entire discipline.”

“I don’t think so. I think I am helping refine it.”

“But your point is a good one. The more we investigate the story, any story, in terms of discovering who so-and-so is, and there is a diminishing capacity of effectiveness.”

“Yeah, and all that is left is the story.”

“To enjoy.”

“To enjoy.”

“Of course. But that is because there is enjoyment in study.”

“Of course there is.”

“Enjoyment in edification and entertainment.”

“So let’s enjoy.”

“Right.”

So agreeing, they each filled their glasses and told stories long into the evening.

***

G. David Schwartz is the former president of Seedhouse, the online interfaith committee. He is the author of A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue. Currently a volunteer at Drake Hospital in Cincinnati, he continues to write. His new book, Midrash and Working Out Of The Book is now in stores or can be ordered at amazon.com.

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