A few weeks ago, my oldest son had his first basketball game. He started playing for the first time for his school and with all of his friends. He’s only eight, but he is deeply passionate about all things sports, and can regularly be seen reading the latest stats of his favorite players, studying the most creative football plays and passes, and even replaying his favorite games (all by himself) in our back yard.
We knew his first game would be difficult, with all of the boys learning how to play together for the first time. What we didn’t expect, however, was how much of his passion seemed to be lost in that first game. He looked confused, even scared. At times when the ball would land right at his feet, he would simply stare at it, worried that he would get “too aggressive” in reaching for it.
It was fascinating to watch, if I’m being honest. All of the kids of his team played this way. We smiled in the stands as we murmured to each other “They’re too nice. They need to get in there!”
On the way home from this first loss, I asked Leo if he was nervous while he played. I asked why he seemed to play more shy than he normally does at home.
“I didn’t want to get a foul, mom,” Leo said sadly, knowing as we all did that his nerves got the best of him.
I love the game of basketball. It’s been a part of my life since as long as I can remember. We used to quote stats and talk strategies around our dinner table growing up. In that moment driving home (and later around our dinner table), I thought of all the tips I could give him. I thought about the strategies around fouling, how some fouls are good fouls, and the rules of the game I could teach him.
But instead, I took a deep breath, smiled at my boy, and I told him a story.
I was in the ninth grade. I was playing for my high school team, and we were about the play our rivals, (a team we lost to on a last second buzzer beater earlier in the season). Tensions were high. None of the players were being kind. Awful words were being thrown by both sides.
So I decided to take the high road. I decided I wouldn’t play the game unless I was kind. If a girl from the other team fell, I would help them up. If they made a good shot, I would compliment them. At the end of the game, after our own last minute win, girls and parents from the other team came up to me to thank me for how nice I was.
“And,” I said to Leo as he finished his late dinner, “I also fouled out of that game.”
Leo looked up from his pizza, eyes wide and confused.
“It is possible, buddy, to be both. To be both kind and play aggressive. My dad was so proud of me for fouling out. It meant I gave my all. It meant if the ball was anywhere on the court, I was going after it.”
In Leo’s next game, he played with the passion and love of the game we knew he had in him. It only got better with his third game. Wherever the ball was on the court, there was Leo. He also committed fouls (twice I think), and he smiled when he did.
Now imagine I had chosen to go a different way. Imagine I hadn’t told him a story, and instead lectured him on the dynamics of the game and the importance of strategic fouling. Would Leo have still played with the same passion and determination in the next game? Maybe not. Actually, probably not. My story (and another story my husband told from his childhood) helped him to come alive. It showed him there was a different way to be, and it taught him an important lesson which he has carried with him since.
This is the power of stories. Stories, perhaps more than other forms of communication, can help us to see the answer of the questions we are asking. They help us to understand our fellow human beings in more compassionate and empathetic ways. They help us to have safe places to interpret our emotions. They embody how to live a life well, or they show us the mistakes of another in the hopes that we would learn from them.
And perhaps most important, stories teach us about ourselves, and help us to see who we are called to be by our Loving Creator. This is at the heart of why we believe stories should accompany us on our spiritual journeys, and why we at Ruah Storytellers would like to use stories to help you dive deeper into the hope of the Advent Season.
May God bless you as we begin our journey this Sunday. We pray our stories will accompany you to go further up and further into the depths of God’s love this Advent.