Opinionista Maria Frahm-Arp 13 August 2020

The salvation of communication: Storytelling our way through Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting the existing order of things and setting us on a new path, a transition in history. In earlier times, oral stories – later to be written down – were used as ways to help people cope with these transitions. Great literature serves the same purpose – it reminds us that it is normal to be frightened, overwhelmed and anxious.

As we navigate the strange and shifting landscape of Covid-19, leading a group of people at work, or a family at home, through this crisis can be a daunting task. Even more draining is trying to keep positive when the economy is collapsing, and we now all know someone who has passed away because of the virus.

While there might be useful courses, webinars and seminars giving insights on how to lead people through change, one still feels overwhelmed and not that confident in trying to reassure and help colleagues and others through this crisis.

South African author, executive coach and motivational speaker, Erik Kruger, explains that part of the problem is that we are not going through change, but instead a transition. Transitions entail the ending of something before something new can start. Between the ending of one thing and the beginning of something else, there is a liminal space, a type of desert space where the road ahead is not clear. That is where we are at the moment.

As a scholar of world religions, I remembered that the sacred stories from the ancient texts of Hinduism to the great Mesopotamian epics like Galgamash are essentially about crisis. This ancient literature is about heroes experiencing the ending of one way of life so that something new can begin, and in the process they learn how to overcome the unknown. This was enlightening, because it explains what transitions are about – disrupting the existing order of things to set us on a new path towards a particular destination.

In the ancient world these oral stories, that were later written, were used as ways to help people cope with transitions. I did a bit of digging to see how we are thinking about stories in the modern context. I found fascinating research on the importance of storytelling in the workplace. Janis Forman, in her book, Storytelling in Business, explores just how powerful storytelling can be in uniting an organisation and developing a sense of collective identity and belonging.

In a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, Harrison Monarth shows that storytelling evokes in us a strong neurological response which explains why stories are so powerful. The research shows that people forget facts and figures, but they remember a story. 

In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle shows how Danny Meyer was able to open and run not one, but 25 successful restaurants in New York for over 20 years. He did this through language and storytelling. Everyone who worked for him was in agreement, because through stories they learnt how to be a part of the restaurant team. Stories are easy to remember and through them we are able to transfer a wide range of knowledge in ways that are accessible to everyone.

One of the most important outcomes of this process has been what may be considered as “gracious communication”. As a library team, we have been able to journey this far through lockdown and through all the Zoom, online and email fatigue, still communicating graciously with one another. This is partly because our daily exploration of literature reminds us that it is normal to be frightened, overwhelmed and anxious.

As a member of the library team at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), it is part of my business to share books and stories with people. As such, we have begun to find ways to use the volumes of books all around us in the digital world to create a tool that could help us all cope with crisis, loss, transition and insecurity. Instead of individual people telling their stories, we began to engage more with the great stories in literature as a community on WhatsApp. 

Each week we read a different book. We also made short videos summarising the stories, which are shared in serial form from Monday to Friday for those who couldn’t find time to read the whole book. 

So far, we have read how the three female protagonists in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus overcame the oppression and abuse within their family and by the Nigerian state. We were able to recognise how lockdown and all its economic and medical ramifications are oppressive and we, like the protagonists in the book, need to develop our own coping mechanisms to prevent this crisis from overwhelming us.

We looked at how women negotiated the crisis of a loveless marriage, or no marriage at all, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The current violence against women in the home space is not something new, but it is something we all need to stand against. Jane Austen reminded us to look behind the curtain and have the courage to stop pretending that all is fine, and admit that it is not.

Through JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, we were reminded of the power of friendship and fellowship, and that even the smallest among us has an important role to play. We will overcome Covid-19 and its multiple forms of devastation, not on our own, but as a fellowship – as a community that virtually works together where everyone can find their new role and we all learn new skills.  

Through contemporary popular literature like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, we explored the meaning and importance of celebrating the small things, and creating moments over a cup of hot chocolate where we can really share our struggles and anxieties with someone we trust. None of these books has a road map for Covid-19, but each of them has given us insight into ways to negotiate, cope with and even flourish in a time of crisis and anxiety. 

One of the most important outcomes of this process has been what may be considered as “gracious communication”. As a library team, we have been able to journey this far through lockdown and through all the Zoom, online and email fatigue, still communicating graciously with one another. This is partly because our daily exploration of literature reminds us that it is normal to be frightened, overwhelmed and anxious.

No one has the answer but together we will tackle the unknown, and, like Frodo and Sam, we will make our way through the Dead Marshes to fulfil our quest. DM

Gallery

ANALYSIS

Faithless: The SABC is in turmoil, while Muthambi avoids her rightful fate

By Stephen Grootes

Because it was banned in the 1900s the majority of Americans do not know that blackcurrant flavoured anything is in actual fact a normality worldwide.