Stories tell us as much if not more about the teller as they do about the subject of the narrative. Every culture, every society, tells stories to explain the world as they know it. Stories reflect how people think; their values, beliefs and ways of living, in other words, their Living Heritage. Because stories reflect social tacit knowledge understanding the power of story to shape individual and collective perspectives and world views is essential to building a shared future in a pluralistic world.

Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington & Jefferson College, thinks we are storytelling animals. In his book, aptly titled, The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall claims, “. . . nature designed us to enjoy stories so we would get the benefit of practice. Fiction is an ancient virtual reality technology that specializes in simulating human problems.”   As children, fairy tales provide our first opportunities to try on different roles, to discover who we are and the kind of person we want to become. As adults we read books and watch movies that provide similar opportunities to imagine ourselves in another role, place and time. This leads to empathy and the theory of mind; our awareness and understanding of another’s mental state. It doesn’t make any difference if the story is fact or fiction. A good story engages us at an emotional level and that is why they are so powerful. Gottschall, suggests that, “. . . stories are working on us all the time, reshaping us in the way that flowing water gradually reshapes a rock.”  Gottschall acknowledges that digital technology has changed the communal nature of story, however he is not concerned that story will cease to play an important role in our lives rather he says the real threat is that, “story will take it over completely.”   In other words, there is a danger in letting our emotions and our imaginations take over all aspects of our lives. Civil society depends on our ability and willingness to slow down our emotional response and consider social issues and the greater good.

Mark Kingwell in his keynote address to Heritage Saskatchewan’s Forum delegates in February 2013 spoke about the unknown knowns, which is another way of expressing social tacit knowledge as applied to ideas or thoughts. When a way of thinking becomes habitual, we cease to be conscious of it. We all carry bias and prejudices that we may not even be aware of. If you have ever caught yourself thinking, ‘well it’s just common sense,’ then you know you have come up against your own basic assumptions. However, common sense is not as common as many of us might think. The colonial legacy that shaped many contemporary social issues and the ongoing conflicts around the world are the result of different worldviews in confrontation. In order to resolve these issues we first need to become aware of our own worldview; only then will we have the capacity to acknowledge and consider someone else’s. At the “Gathering for miyo mahcihowin (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being)” in March 2018, Neal Kewistep with the Saskatchewan Health Authority said much the same thing; “if you can get people to appreciate their own culture and how they use it or its’ importance, you can get them to support others.” In a pluralistic world cross-cultural communication skills are essential to negotiating a shared future. Kingwell believes that this is when life gets really interesting, when you move from one reality to another, breaking the frame can be painful, but it can also be liberating. 

Questioning values, beliefs, and ways of living that have served well in one context to consider another worldview will only happen when people trust they have a supportive environment in which to explore the options. Make no mistake, every individual is changed by participation in shared experiences and contributes to community life in a positive or negative way reflecting the give and take on which relationships are based. When applied to quality of life issues such as health and wellbeing, citizenship and social cohesion, education and employment, the process of social integration demonstrates the significant role of Living Heritage in daily life and the contribution individuals and groups make not only to the cultural life of the community, but to the social, environmental and economic viability of the community as well; not to mention its’ long-term sustainability.

What legacy will we leave for future generations? In order to address the defining issues of our times  we must be willing to question our assumptions, be prepared to unlearn what we think we know, and be willing to apply critical analysis to the programs and services we provide in order to ensure we are contributing to the common good. Good intentions are not good enough. Making mistakes along the way is inevitable as we strive to do better however they can become opportunities for learning as well. The choices we make as citizens reflect our sense of identity, belonging and place and acknowledge that each individual is also part of something greater than themselves. Nurturing positive experiences, negotiating differences, and building an inclusive society is everyone’s responsibility.

Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator
Sandra has been an active member of the cultural community for over 20 years. A student by nature, Sandra’s recent interests include memory and the value of personal storytelling, exploring the fine line between fact and fiction, and how we create meaning and build a sense of identity, belonging and place in a pluralistic world.