The Next Faithful Step

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Stories Form People

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

The sociologist Robert Wuthnow investigated over the course of two books how people come to care for others. He looked, in Acts of Compassion, at adults engaged in volunteering1 and asked, in Learning to Care, how children learn to be kind.2 The common theme that he found in each of these studies was the importance of stories in cultivating kindness and inspiring volunteerism. Acts of Compassion focuses on how and why people perform selfless service while thriving in a society characterized by rugged individualism. He says that “having a language to describe our motives is one of the ways we make compassion possible in the individualistic society in which we live.”3 Yet when he examined this language of motivation, he did not find what we might expect. People did not talk about beliefs, values, or even purposes as resources for understanding their caring acts. “The accounts of our motives, when all is said, are basically stories,” Wuthnow found, “highly personalized stories, not assertions of high-flown values, but formulaic expressions of ourselves.” We in the church often rely on theological beliefs or moral logics to muster people to action. He found instead that, “It is not the language of religion or philosophy, or of psychology or economics, from which these accounts [of people’s motivations] are constructed, but the language of personal experience.” Wuthnow describes the paradigmatic account that a man named Jack Casey told of his motivation to serve. “Although he drew from various repertoires…he felt more comfortable telling a story. He had told it before. It brought together the deep anxieties of his inner being and the circumstances demanding a caring response in one dramatic episode.”4 Telling a story about one situation where he gave himself up for others was more compelling to him than mustering all the abstract beliefs, values, and purposes that surely fed into that decision to serve.

To solidify his point that, “You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables,”5 he examines the impact of one story of the American concept of compassion. He looks at how people understand Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.6 He does a masterful job showing how one story can mean many things to different people. When he asks people to re-tell the story in their own words, people re-cast the location so that it is the story of, say, a Communist on the Ho Chi Minh Trail or it is about a Mexican laborer. This change of context is important because it points to an important caveat in our discussion of why stories are so powerful. Wuthnow found that it was more important for a person to have seen the story lived out than it was for them to be able to tell the story. “Apparently the Good Samaritan parable is like other stories,” Wuthnow found, “it cannot just be a part of historic lore to be relevant; it has to be revitalized, updated, put in your own context, for your actions to be influenced by it.”7 Stories thus need an interpreter, someone to update them with contemporary examples that bring the meaning of the story to life. That is why there is such a powerful tie between preaching and storytelling. They complement each other. And when people can imagine themselves into a story, then they are motivated to live out that story in their daily lives. And that’s how compassion becomes possible in an individualist society.

But where did these adults learn to care? Wuthnow followed up his study by looking at how children and youth figure out how to put aside selfishness and pursue caring. The difficult transition for teens who are learning to express kindness in an impersonal society involves them moving from the “personalized caring they experience in their families” to the institutionalized care provided by churches and social service agencies. Once again, Wuthnow found that the power of stories was the key to this move toward compassionate action. Youth often feel trapped between two worlds—between selfishness and compassion, between the personal world of family and the impersonal world of institutions. Thus teens do what all people do. When “we feel conflicted, we tell stories.” These “stories permit us to play specialized roles while retaining our sense of personhood.” Role models “enact our stories.”8 They “show us it is possible to perform well and still be human.” Teens use stories about role models to look into the future to imagine that they too could give of themselves. The stories then become an examination of the possible, a place to play with the future so that it no longer seems so daunting.9 



1 Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).

2 Wuthnow, Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

3 Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion, 49, 50.

4 Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion, 84, 85.

5 Wuthnow is quoting the poet and essayist W.H. Auden; Auden, “Art and Psychology,” in The Arts Today, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (London: John Lane, 1935) 18, quoted in Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion, 179;

6 Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion, Chapter 6: Along the Road, 157-187.

7 Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion, 162 (Note: Wuthnow adds, “Fortunately, most people –85 percent—who can tell the story have also experienced an example of it in their lives.”)

8 Wuthnow, Learning to Care, 132-134.

9 Wuthnow actually lists quite a few ways that storytelling motivates young people to selfless service. For example, he says that storytelling “brings something abstract down to earth so that it can be understood at several levels, viscerally as well as intellectually.” (137) It makes “events more relevant to the context in which people live.” (137) Stories “show that caring need not involve great sacrifice or heroism but can be demonstrated in small acts of kindness.” (138) Indeed, he found that stories of great heroes like Mother Teresa “were too distant from [teen’s] own experience to be meaningful” and it is “mundane stories [that] make caring possible.” (139) Stories also “encapsulate a sense of belonging” that demonstrate how caring institutions like a church can provide “a halfway house, a home away from home, where bonds can develop similar to those of one’s family.” (140) “Storytelling also resolves the contradictions we experience as we move into institutional roles, by convincing us that we are still whole persons rather than becoming nothing more than the roles we play.” (141)