Sacred Stories

November 19, 2009 Leave a comment

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

William Stafford, from “A Ritual to Read to One Another”

I, for one, could not be happier that we have as our President a man with such apparent capacity of careful thought, measured analysis, and poetic expression.  The other day I reread a passage from Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and was bowled over by its insight and beauty.  The passage comes at a point when Obama is reflecting upon his work as a community organizer in Chicago, which became all consuming as he often spent his social time with community leaders and residents, immersing himself in their lives.  He writes:

“At a Christmas party, I danced with women old enough to be my mother.  I talked sports over stale cheese puffs and meatballs with husbands who had been reluctantly dragged to the affair.  I counseled sons and daughters on their college applications, and played with grandchildren who sat on my knee.  It was during such times when familiarity or wariness dissolved the lines between organizer and those that I was supposed to be organizing that I learned the most about the work I had chosen.  I learned that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions, people carried within them some central explanation of themselves, stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them.  Sacred stories.”

I really resonate with this notion of “sacred stories” that lie beneath the self-interest relative to issues that often polarize us.  These are the stories where we can really find one another and experience our shared interest and humanity (sacred means “made whole”).  I know their power to unite and the time and attention that is required to access them.  And I know the suffering that can come from being disconnected from our own stories.  In a world of sound bytes and short attention spans, what can we do to reclaim our stories and weave shared narratives that take us to new depths and heights?  The question points in the direction of prioritizing relationship and the creation of spaces where we can tend to the work of being with one another, of sharing, listening, and healing.

Perhaps in this season of Thanksgiving we might find the time to practice with our friends and loved ones.  What are the stories we have yet to access?  What stars remain unseen?

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  • Jen Willsea says:

    Yes! Thanks, Curtis.

  • This is a great, prolific post. I thank you for it because it cuts to the heart of what makes business people, all people, whole, in my opinion. Finding our “sacred story” or spiritual center is critical. I feel like in many ways, I just found mine in the last 18 months or so… finally after nearly 39 years! It seems to have made a huge difference in terms of how I live, relate to the world and conduct business. And what I have achieved since finding it has been deeply gratifying, both personally and professionally.

    Here is my question: is there a practical way for the IISC to help business leaders to discover their sacred stories? I feel this would be of incredible value to the business community, particularly at a time when most people and companies are facing incredible economic stress, and the world is itself dealing with environmental, social and political upheaval.

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Christine, for your response and for your ongoing wonderful work around corporate social and environmental responsibility.

    I appreciate you sharing about finding your own “sacred story” recently and the impact this has had. For me as well, this has made the difference between living in my head, with a more intellectual understanding of what I/we must do going forward, and a more full-bodied feeling and way of being. It has resulted in a real impulse to stand more boldly in the fire and to seek alignment and integration. Much more work to be done here, for sure, and it is tremendous to feel that the foundational orientation is strong and right!

    Your question about what IISC can do to help leaders discover their sacred stories is one I am actively exploring with colleagues here at IISC, and at Interaction Associates (specifically Ashley Welch and John McGah). Together Ash, John, and I designed and helped launch the Accelerator Expedition which recently ran as a pilot to take business leaders to Ecuador in partnership with the Pachamama Alliance to disrupt their traditional ways of seeing and acting (and the stories they tell about themselves and so-called “reality”) to bring them more into alignment with what it means to live in more synergistic ways with the planet. By all accounts, this was achieved, or begun, and it is but a starting point upon which we would like to build.

    Short of whisking people off to the rain forest, especially in these tight times and warming climate, what I feel it comes down to is creating and holding the spaces wherever we can where people can step out of their limited work identities and knee-jerk ways of being, to pause if even briefly but in ongoing ways, to get beyond the surface to dive deeper into themselves, into one another, and into what is waiting to emerge in this world. It can happen in just 10 minutes a day, I think. Open minds, open hearts, open wills, as Otto Scharmer writes about the progression we must walk through. This is the ground we are breaking along with others and attempting to supplement with Interaction’s collaborative methods (the handrails that can carry us forward as awareness shifts) and network theory/tools that help us to understand/sense and work with our interconnected and complex reality.

    And I would love to continue the conversation! Thanks . ..

  • Im taking you up on your offer, Curtis, and carrying forward more on story on Friday’s blog post. Our stories are also sacred in that they can be agents — powerful agents of personal and social change. In this season of giving thanks, thanks to you and President Obama for nudging us to be noble in our narration. More anon. 😉

  • Curtis, thank you for the post and for recognizing the value of diving deeper through story. I believe the part of the reason people make financial contributions to nonprofit organizations is that they WANT to dive deeper into their true self and sometimes that is the only way they know how to do it. I am committed to assisting people to more quickly identify their own sacred story and with that move further on the path to “open minds, open hearts, open wills.” When people are truly “seen” and heard the shift that happens is often pure magic.

  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for your response. I am particularly struck by what you said with respect to people wanting to be “seen.” You literally took the words out of my head (and a future post), following a training I did the other day with health care professionals in Maine. At one point we got into a discussion about the role of love in collaborative leadership, and there was widespread agreement that it was important, but not a shared sense of what it looked like in action. Until one of the more senior members talked about the power he has experienced over his long career of offering unsolicited praise to colleagues that lets them know they are “seen and held in mind.” There was deep resonance in the room. That kind of attention and intention is critically important, and seemingly in such short supply, including in families and classrooms, not to mention organizations. Such a need for more widespread “practice of relatedness” as Parker Palmer says. Thank you for your own work in helping to open minds, hearts, and wills at this critical time!


  • John McGah says:

    Hi Christine and Curtis et al,

    I loved the blog Curtis, and the image of our President listening to sacred stories was moving to me as an American. The sacred stories reminds me too of Robert Coles’s work, and the power of stories to understand our core values, our biography on paper but also that core essence within us that speaks to our whole person. He used stories to connect with people otherwise disconnected because of economics, color, health status, etc.

    Business leaders too can be disconnected due to stress, or circumstances that make some people and nature seem unconnected to us.

    In our work at Interaction Associates along with Curtis on the Accelerator Series (leadership development and sustainability) we saw firsthand the power of leaders making a deep connection with their core values as people – to tell their sacred stories. Making space to do that (retreating/reflecting at the bottom of Otto Schwarmer’s “U”) can inform all the action in our work that follows. Finding our own Sacred Stories and continuing to listen to them as they (like everything) change over time I believe is where transformation can happen. That transformation, along with a new lens(systems thinking) and collaboration tools, I think is essential for corporations and leaders to thrive overtime while being sustainable.

    Thanks for the blog!

  • Cynthia says:

    Back to the Stafford poem for a minute. I love the line “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
    and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”
    So many of the patterns that others have created are oppressive. While knowing other people does not, in itself, end oppression, it’s not a bad place to start!

  • Curtis says:


    Your post reinforces for me the importance of creating “sacred space.” That’s what you all did in Ecuador, thanks in no small part to the rain forest and the indigenous people who shared their wisdom. A big challenge it seems is to figure out other ways to create this space without traveling so far. New ways of seeing, that’s a goal worth shooting for.


  • Oscar Perez says:

    Curtis and Co.,
    Thank you all for this fascinating conversation. I think that the creation, cultivation, and maintenance of our ‘sacred stories’ is a fundamental aspect of self-realization, one that has long been neglected in our society. Not that the stories do not exist, but as Cynthia pointed out, often the stories we accept and live by are composed of oppressive images of ourselves, our society/community/culture, and more importantly, they neglect the fact that the stories that we accept are accepted by choice. In other words, our stories are OURS, but few stories demonstrate the agency that each of us has in accepting, transforming, and ultimately sharing the vision we have and want of our world. As the weavers of our own stories, and those we project outwards to our community, we have a fundamental responsibility to critically evaluate the stories that we accept as our worldview, and change and maintain them accordingly. It is a monumentous task, a lifelong one, but ultimately one that will keep us on the path to creating the world we envision. Just as our stories can oppress, they can also heal and create the conditions for self-empowerment. Thanks again and happy holidays,


  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Oscar, for your beautiful contribution to the conversation. I am struck on this Christmas Eve, having just come from a moving church service in Weathersfield, Vermont, by the power of story and ritual. As a father of three small children, I am that much more aware of how important it is to be mindful of the stories we convey to children, that are found both in and beyond the words we utter. This evening’s service was full of messages of love, care, concern, community, hope . . . . These came not just from the pulpit but from the myriad interactions in the pews. They were genuine. They were rooted in a sweet longing for connection. I’m looking forward to more of that in the new year. Best to you.

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