This column was originally written in 2016.
You never really know someone’s story—that is, until they have the courage to stand in a room of strangers, wrestle with fear and turn the visceral into the verbal.
Such is the remarkable human spirit I witnessed when I recently attended Storytelling Tuesday (STT), hosted by Balance Well-Being Centre Inc. (BWB), a Kelowna organization of passionate individuals deeply committed, as the name suggests, to balance among four of life’s pillars of well-being: financial, social, mind and body.
These are touched upon throughout the evening, as everyone from artists to athletes to entrepreneurs take the stage and, through laughter, tears and some fantastic storytelling, deliver personal stories of fortitude in the face of harrowing experiences most wouldn’t share with friends, let alone the public. At the very lightest, the tales explore life’s embarrassments and the challenges to one’s sense of self. In the words of one such storyteller, each performance is nothing less than a brave “struggle to be yourself” in the world, free of fear, guilt and judgment.
“There is a raw vulnerability in sharing these stories, so much so, I believe, that the mere notion or hint of sharing them has us typically recoil from even the thought,” BWB board member and storytelling leader Murray McEachern said. “It’s because we know we’re really laying ourselves out there, putting ourselves in a position to be judged, ridiculed, misperceived, rejected or, worse, humiliated. These are very strong headwinds when deciding if we’re going to share any of the array of safe stories we easily have at our disposal or, quite conversely, crack open the safe that houses those stories of our lives that are most tender to us.”
The feeling I had during these performances was unlike any I had experienced, and it changed me. Much more than a night out, the event introduced me to a new way of understanding and relating to people around me. As the storytellers brought me into their worlds of loss, pain, struggle and, ultimately, triumph, I realized that even the most esoteric of experiences can strike universal chords when told with such bold sincerity and unabashed candour.
“I believe that first one needs to see the value in being authentic, understand that our stories connect us, and trust that when we share from the heart the right words will come,” BWB board member and storytelling leader Laurie Bartley said. “To be willing to take a step outside our typical comfort zone, and have faith that our story holds meaning for many, I see it as an act of loving service.”
The message of meaningful connection through authenticity is shared by McEachern.
“What are we each but the sum of the stories of our lives?” McEachern said. “I believe that, innately, all of us yearn for deep connections with our fellow humans, and it is the authentic sharing of our stories that binds us closest together in this way.”
The effect is magical, powerful and inspiring, revealing a local world of such breadth and depth that I was also left with a greater appreciation of the people here in the Central Okanagan. Fittingly, the tagline for Storytelling Tuesday is “Experiencing Your Community Through Inspirational Stories.” So the impact the performances have on the audience is no accident. The focus on the community is at the heart of BWB’s long-term vision.
“I saw a need to connect the amazing well-being companies locally with individuals in the community where we live who need to improve their well-being,” BWB CEO and Storytelling Tuesday creator Shawna McCrea said. “I wanted to create a platform to make that happen, to support well-being companies and help them develop and grow, ultimately building a well-being community. I was very inspired by Accelerate Okanagan and the Film Factory, both community building organizations.”
McCrea points out that Storytelling Tuesday is just one event in the BWB events series, which also includes a variety of skill-building workshops, lunch and learns, and coffee collaborations.
Maggie Reigh runs communication skills workshops at BWB, and she saw the possibilities right away when she attended the first STT event.
“Everyone I talked to had a great time and plans to attend next month,” Reigh said in a Facebook post. “You truly have your finger on the pulse of our community, Shawna. This IS what we’ve been looking for!”
The BWB philosophy of community connectedness embraced me immediately when I first felt it.
Having moved to Kelowna from Toronto only six months ago to start a new life of decreased stress, meaning, positivity and hope, I can attest to the fact that there is something remarkable about this part of the world, and Storytelling Tuesday is the concentrated manifestation of the spirit of exploration, discovery and adventure I have come to love in so many kindred spirits I have met here in the Okanagan Valley. The team at BWB have created a very special space where you can be yourself.
All dreams are valid here. This is how I described Kelowna to a good friend back in Toronto when he called me this past winter to see how I was making out in my new home. As we spoke, this same friend quipped cheekily that everyone who comes here to the Okanagan seems to be escaping from something. I rather see it as people moving toward themselves and searching for likeminded individuals who understand that quest.
In the STT world, publicly embracing the essence of who you are requires not only courage but also faith in the process and in the community spirit that BWB is cultivating.
“Enter a safe space, enter genuine interest, enter a spirit of wholesome support,” McEachern said. “Enter a community oriented environment where the highest intention is to facilitate individual self expression. Enter an environment in which individuals come to sense, with growing confidence, that they are going to be upheld, that they are valued for who they really are, that they are and will be honoured for the stories that have carved out their character, that they are held safe to share of themselves more personally, (and) that they have this opportunity before them to participate in a collective that exemplifies generosity of spirit of which they come to be an integral part.”
In many cases, this necessary safe space has been a long time coming, as the storyteller may have been carrying an unshared truth around for many years.
“I chose to share a story that I had never told anyone about, not even my husband or family,” Bartley said. “For some reason, the lesson of it resonated deeply with me and I clearly heard the message that it was to be shared. When ‘that’ voice speaks, I take action. I found it cathartic, having released something that had been inside me for some time.”
The result of having participated in the storytelling—from either side of the microphone—is something to behold. Expressions of rapt attention and engagement throughout the audience are matched only by the beaming glow of deep gratitude and acceptance on the speakers’ faces as they are warmly congratulated by Bartley and McEachern. And while not all the stories deal with tragedy, they all deal with transformation.
“Some stories touch us deeply; others bring humour, laughter, and delight,” Bartley said. “The culture of respectful listening and engagement from the audience has supported and inspired many to come forward with interest. The guidance and support of Murray and I with each storyteller helps them trust the process and BWB community to challenge themselves, step onstage, and share a piece of themselves. We all matter. By simply sharing a part of themselves, Storytellers give others permission to do the same.”
McCrea is looking to the future with the hope that the BWB community will continue to connect with the local community through Storytelling Tuesday.
“We have definitely been learning and adjusting as we go, but our original format has definitely held the test,” she said. “I love that Laurie and Murray work closely as a team to welcome storytellers and guide their experience. I hear rave reviews from all those involved. So many people have come forward to be storytellers, and we love giving them the opportunity to share. The ultimate hope is for people to connect differently. We have all faced challenges and we should be proud of them, not ashamed, and hearing others’ stories lets us feel connected.”
Maybe the room beyond the microphone isn’t filled with strangers after all.
Storytelling Tuesday takes place on the second Tuesday of every month. You can find more information and purchase tickets here.
This column was submitted as part of BWB Wednesdays.
All Columnists Stories