What If Storytelling Is the Key to Saving Lives?

How Storytelling and Tribalism could play a key part in the role we play in our lives.

Humans are a social species who are not adapted to live alone, but in groups. Being part of tribe is part of our survival mechanism that is naturally wired in us. Our identities are bound up with our own unique tribes and those people help define who we are.

I have been thinking a lot about the last school shooting in Florida and the March For Our Lives campaign through the lenses of storytelling and tribalism. It has made me contemplate why people resort to such violent acts and how these empowered kids have created their own tribe and are sharing their pain.

Storytelling in Tribes

One of the key ways tribe members connect is to share stories. When people in a group bear witness to the pain of their fellow members, they offer compassion, showing how they value and love one another.

Just because our society has grown from small tribes in the desert to big cities does not mean our desperate need to feel part of and be accepted by our tribe members has not changed. We all yearn to be loved, honored, cherished and surrounded by others who will protect us and help us survive in the uncertain world we live in. And not feeling part of or even feeling rejected by our tribe or tribes can seem like a matter of life and death.

One key way to be loved, honored, cherished and loved—one way to feel part of the tribe—is to be heard and understood. This can happen through storytelling.

In every tribe we step into, we must tell our stories. In every tribe we are part of, we must receive each other’s stories.

Extending our Tribes

We are raised first with our own family tribe, then our extended family tribe. A few years later we join our neighborhood and school tribe, then create a friends tribe. We might become part of a church, sports, or other extra curricular tribe, before we move into our college tribe.

After that, we begin early adulthood in our work tribe and finally settle into our first home where we form our new family and friends tribe, which can extend into a new neighborhood tribe.

Pulling Away from our Tribes

When people pull away from their family, friends, school, church, or work associates because they are hurt, alone, or feel rejected, that is a clear sign something has gone wrong. Something has happened to those people—they need help. They need to be known, heard, and encouraged to stay in their tribe.

For those who are in pain, storytelling—in the context of a safe and loving tribe—could be the key to understanding why they reach a tipping point of anger that ignites the anger to kill.

They could tell their story of feeling misunderstood or bullied. Others could listen and reach out, offer support, help them feel heard, known and accepted. Instead of feeling alone, they could continue to feel part of the tribe.

When You Have Different Views from Your Tribe

We are all searching for unity and a desire to part of group. Groups of people that feel connected to each other in a meaningful way create a tribe. Tribal sociology teaches us how to feel, react, relate and judge the others we live with. But what if we have different views or characteristics as our other tribe members?

This can create tension. In fact, when tribe members feel scared or fearful or threatened, they tend to see other members through their own lenses and create stories of others that support the story they make up—stories that can make them feel more powerful or, conversely, like a victim.

When tribe members judge the physical, psychological, principles, attitudes, or behaviors of their group members, they can create distorted opinions instead of seeing any actual differences. This causes a sense of “us versus them” and leads to polarization within the tribe.

Polarization can be a challenge when it deals with judgments, and these judgments can include the way people view class, family, ideology, religion, lifestyle, or nationality. But the situation can escalate and feel life threatening to an individual who feels rejected by the tribe for their different views or characteristics.

Are You Encouraging Acceptance in Your Tribes?

But what if some or all of these tribe members don’t love, cherish, and care about us? And how do we treat others who seem to be slipping into the shadows on the fringes of the tribe?

Might we reach out to others when we’re feeling rejected and share our story?

Might we reach out to those who are feeling rejected and invite them to tell their story?

Do you accept or reject the people in your own tribe or members of other tribes?

Differences Does Not Mean We’re Enemies?

Different from Other Tribes?

It is normal and healthy to differ and disagree with people in other tribes, but where we disconnect from humanity is when we view the other tribe as our enemies because they are different.

Differences Within our Own Tribes

Even more important is how do we treat the people in our tribes. Do we respect, honor and include them in our group even though they are different?

When we can’t find common ground and empathy with the people in our tribes—and when we fail to view other tribes with respect and empathy—we leave people feeling hurt, rejected and alone. Isolated.

People Without a Tribe

Sometimes, people without a tribe—or people who think they’re without a tribe, even if others continue to view them as part of things—will feel as though their life does not matter or have any value.

When tribe members feel banned, some have the strength to leave their tribe and find and accepted by other groups.

Some become leaders and create their own group.

Some even move to new cities, leaving their old tribe and never look back.

But most “tribeless” individuals feel they have nowhere to go. They feel like they don’t belong. These people become hopeless, which causes them to become scared and angry. Often, they take their pain out on others.

How It Feels to Lose a Tribe Member or Lose a Whole Tribe

When I first lost my twin brother, I was devastated. My closest tribe member from my first tribe in life was gone.

It hit me harder because at the same time, I was rejected by two of my work tribe members.

Three years later, my sister Kris suddenly died, and I was betrayed by two of my key friend tribe members.

Two years later, I lost my sister Kathy in six short weeks after she was diagnosed with Leukemia. She was my last core family tribe member that I trusted and felt safe with, and that is the day I felt lost and didn’t feel like I mattered anymore.

Loss and rejection from so many tribe members in so many formative tribes! Though the small family tribe I had created as an adult was still intact—my husband and children—I’d lost my childhood family tribe as well as important work tribes. I felt disheartened and disconnected from the world.

It took many years of coaching and therapy to find the courage to seek out my place in the world again. Since experiencing my own bouts of anger and defeat, I tried to find new tribes to fit into, but no matter how hard I endeavored to fit in, the tribe members did not accept me. Again and again I walked away dejected and disheartened.

When School Shooters Seek (and Lose) Their Place in a Tribe

These same kinds of unfortunate circumstances could have led the Florida high school shooter to do what he did. Rejected by all his tribes, he reached his breaking point of pain and heartache.

His father died when he was thirteen—a significant time in development, when boys need their fathers most. His mother died a year before the shooting. He entered another family tribe adopted, which may have stirred up complicated feelings of rejection even though he was received into the tribe.

With only the shaky foundation of a fragile family tribe, if any, his girlfriend broke up with him—another tribe lost from rejection.

Then his last main tribe—his school—expelled him, isolating him from peers who might have provided a sense of shelter and acceptance.

I believe there are evil people out there, and maybe he was one of them, but I also believe that one person can make a difference in another person’s life.

What the shooter did was horrible, could it be possible that felt he was not part of a tribe who truly loved, accepted and cherished him, this “tribeless” isolation may have pushed him to his breaking point. Alone and angry, he tragically took out his uncontrollable anger on a tribe of innocent people.

Expressions of Pain

People who are in pain and become angry will find whatever tools they can to take their anger out on others—words, fists, guns, knives, bombs and any other devices—to hurt, punch, wound, injure, blow up or kill others.

All that matters in that moment of agony is to get the torment out of your body in some way as fast as possible. If you have every felt deep pain and loss like I have, you may have felt the same desperation. While it may not have prompted you or me to violence toward others, it can lead some people to acts of violence to themselves through cutting, anorexia, negative thoughts, and suicide.

And how much support and love you have from your tribe or others can make the difference as to how you express it.

That’s why story plays such a powerful role in healthy expression of our pain and loss.

Instead of living a story of loss and isolation, we can share our story and find connection again. In fact, we can actually change our story.

By changing our story, we can change our lives.

What Role Do You Want to Play?

What role do we want to play in our own life story? How do we want to evolve? Do we want to be the villains, victims or heroes in our stories?

How can we change our life stories and become leaders in our own tribes? Can we inspire others to feel welcomed into our tribe?

Is it possible to choose love, compassion and honor—as opposed to anger, judgment and condemnation—when dealing with other tribe members?

Tribe Leader Case Study

A good example of how one teacher is leading her own tribe and making a difference in her own school tribe was recently highlighted in a Readers Digest article written by Glennon Doyle Melton.

She highlights a teacher who is leading the tribe in her school, and by telling the story, Glennon herself plays the role of a tribe leader, speaking into the lives of every reader who turns to her for inspiration. Here’s an excerpt:

Every Friday afternoon, the teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.

And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.

Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

Who can’t think of anyone to request?

Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

Who had a million friends last week and none this week?

You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.

This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness.

We all yearn to be loved, cherished and accepted by others. To be part of a group of people where we feel safe, appreciated and nurtured.

We’re often as fragile as those kids in that teacher’s classroom, lonely and disconnected. We need people to notice. We need people to see when we’re not getting likes and we’re not getting noticed.

We need to connect.

We need to hear each other’s stories and reach out. We need to notice, share, and reach out to others who feel lonely and disconnected.

Listening to other people’s stories in our tribes and even those in other tribes—or those in no tribe at all—could help save millions of lives and bring humanity together.

Stories Forge Connection

We are all often scared, trying our best to understand and make sense of why these acts of violence are happening in our world.

In many of these shootings, mental illness plays a role—those who perform these tragic acts may have experienced a mental breakdown. However, could that mental breakdown have been prompted by the rejection of being part of a tribe?

Could it be that the story they tell themselves—that no one cares about them and that they don’t matter—feels more true than the possibility of finding connection and acceptance in a new, more loving tribe?

What if members of tribes in schools and places of worship and clubs and neighborhoods chose to listen to those stories?

If someone develops depression and heartache from feeling unwanted by their parents or rejected by their schoolmates, what if they were heard? What if they found connection? Would they still snap? Or would they seek to protect and join arms with others who provided them with a safe place—a relational haven?

If they didn’t receive that acceptance and connection and instead felt rejected and hurt, it doesn’t take long to imagine the layers pain caused when they were made fun of or judged harshly by the people they work with.

Listen Close and Change the World

How many acts of violence need to happen before we find a way to open our hearts and arms to people of other tribes who are hurting and are in pain?

If our kids can do it with the March For Our Lives campaign, can’t we all create millions of loving and caring tribes who welcome, accept and listen to the painful stories other need to share to help east their pain which will help save their and many other lives.

Look around your tribes. Who is falling through the cracks? Who is going unnoticed and unchosen—who seems to feel rejected?

Have them over for coffee. Ask them to open up. Receive their story and you might change the world.

What role do you want to play in the next chapter of our world’s story?  

Written by Marta M. Mobley

2 thoughts on “What If Storytelling Is the Key to Saving Lives?

Add yours

  1. Wow, Marta! Your article was interesting, enlightening, and insightful; it is also the perfect foreword for my memoir. Can we talk?


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