by Caleb Winebrenner
Once a mentor of mine put forth a question “What is your learning edge?” By this, she meant the boundary line between all of our knowledge up until now, and our current experience in the moment. It’s the place where you are feeling the most discomfort, and hopefully, the most excitement about how you are growing and stretching beyond what you previously knew to be true. I find “the learning edge” a useful concept, intellectually. On a personal level, I find that learning edges are places of deep vulnerability.
A few months ago, I came face-to-face with a learning edge that I didn’t even know existed for me. A friend and fellow storyteller asked,”Why don’t you ever talk about your own wisdom journey?”
I tell wisdom stories. I love the parables, the folktales, the dilemma stories. I love what they teach us. Instead of lecturing about deep and profound human truths, I try to find the stories that demonstrate those truths, and demonstrate the power of the human mind and spirit to grow and overcome challenges. I do this, as my friend pointed out, while saying nothing of my own. Facing that incongruity has prompted learning and healing in new directions, and a profound reorientation with my work as a storyteller.
Walking along this learning edge, I am discovering that the inner journey of the storyteller directly influences the storymaking. As a young teller, I have mostly concerned myself with questions of talent, ability, and technique. I’ve focused on developing a “style” or “voice” to my storytelling. But here, at the learning edge, I am not concerned with those questions. I am concerned with a deeper question of my own healing: in a word, integrity.
In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” By this he means that the talents, abilities, and styles of teaching that most directly serve the strengths of a teacher are those rooted in his or her integrity as a person. Much like good teaching comes from the integrity of the teacher, good storytelling comes from the integrity of the storyteller. In being aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I have discovered and learned from stories that speak more to my own experience and growth than to some abstract “truth.”
There is a word for the stories that speak deeply to experience. They are the stories we love . M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled , “I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I have adopted his definition, and applied it to stories. In other words, the stories we love, in the deepest way, are the ones that extend us out into the world or deep into ourselves, in order to nurture our own or another’s spiritual growth. As a part of my journey along the learning edge, I have parted ways with stories I like and respect, to give more room instead to the stories I love (such as the one I share below). If the stories I tell cannot nurture my own growth, then they are not authentically mine to tell. I have no heartfelt relationship with them. Given this, then stories I do not love certainly cannot nurture growth in others, which is why I began to tell wisdom stories in the first place.
M. Scott Peck also wrote that “Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.” The problem of not sharing my own wisdom journey is itself the place where my wisdom can be created at least if I let it. Looking deeply at my own life, and the painful, shadowy, and difficult facing of my problems, is the root of any sincere claim I can make to having wisdom.
In other words, the most profound shift in my storytelling has not come in choosing, “I will tell wisdom stories,” but rather in choosing, “I will pursue wisdom as a part of my life and healing.” Only when wisdom is in my life can it be in my stories. On my best days, the stories I tell are the most sublime expression of who I am. On my worst days (and any of the days in between), they serve, like a mindfulness bell, as reminders of who I hope to be.
This has meant facing moments where I feel I have no integrity, no love, and no wisdom. For example, how can I tell a story of overcoming anger when it is such a frequent struggle? This is the story I tell, a Zen parable:
A samurai goes to a monastery and says, “I want to know about heaven and hell.” A monk, undisturbed in his meditation by the ferocious samurai, says “Such knowing requires discipline, friend.”
The samurai grows cross. “Of course I have discipline! I am a samurai!”
“Alright. Such knowing requires patience, my friend,” replies the monk.
“I am patient! I — I have waited for days to seize a castle or fight an opponent!”
“Alright. Such knowing requires integrity, my friend,” replies the monk.
“Integrity! I am a Samurai! A master of honor!” And he grows furious, even drawing his sword over his head.
The monks still sits calmly. He says, “See that feeling? That is hell.”
The samurai breathes, deeply, and puts his sword away. He breathes again, and smiles.
“See that feeling, friend? That… that is heaven.”
In this story, when I tell it, I am both the monk and the samurai not just in my miming, voices, or any of the other tools of technique but in my visceral, in-the-moment living of the story. I know from experience the heat of anger, and I know from practicing meditation the coolness of the monk’s calm.
In pursuing certain kinds of stories, my life has to live those themes for the story to be authentic. The monk and samurai story, at first, had something to teach me. I told it because I needed to experience that lesson for myself. Sharing that vulnerability with students and audiences gave me the resolve to know my anger better, and pursue the monk’s equanimity. It became a story I love, because it holds space for my learning edge.
Admittedly, I still have far to go in life before I master my darker places or lay any claim to “being wise.” But, stories like that one I can now tell from a place of empathetic awareness and experience. In the story, I honor my integrity, love, and wisdom. In honoring that in myself, I can then share all that, in abundance, with others.
- The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life , by Parker J.
- The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual
Caleb Winebrenner is a storyteller and teaching artist based in Tempe, Arizona. His unique performances craft world folklore and wisdom tales into warm, engaging events. Trained as an actor, mime, and teacher, his performances and workshops draw out the natural warmth, intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom of all present. He especially loves the opportunity to engage with young people around the issues that matter to them, often through the lens of a parable or story. As Paulo Coelho once said, “The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gap where everything else has crumbled.” Find him on Facebook and Twitter @storytellrcaleb.