Our world is pregnant with stories for social change — some revolutionary and transformative, others divisive and explosive. People all over the world are demanding change, yet how is your life a story for social change? And what is your vision for change? If you were to tell your life as a story, what would be the characters, narratives, and underlying messages of your story?
Social tipping points for major social, economic, and planetary changes are increasing and aligning. During such times the narratives of our stories become even more important. Many of the big social movements in the world have catalyzed social change by using engaging narratives that they’ve created or adopted.
Stories can become powerful catalysts for social change, that’s why it’s so important to know how stories trigger you, as well as what your story may trigger in others.
When I was a little girl I loved stories and often dreamed of my life as an adventure that had not yet begun. Each night before going to bed, I would imagine my life as a story, and each morning while waking up I would try to recall my dreams and carry them with me into my day. Many years later, my life indeed became very adventurous, and still is...
When I was eighteen years old, I met an incredible storyteller who showed me the power of story for social change. I had gone to Scotland for a month, as part of a brief apprenticeship at the Edinburgh Art Festival, by invitation of the organizer, Richard Demarco. He had given me a VIP pass so I could move behind the scenes of many incredible performances and meet with the artists themselves.
I had just completed secondary school in the Netherlands and wanted to become a concert pianist. Richard had heard me play during a concert in Strasbourg as a member of the European Youth Parliament. He insisted that I needed to join him in Edinburgh after he learned more about my story and my international focus. Almost all of my friends had decided to enroll at a University, but I really wanted to explore if my path was to become a concert pianist. This invitation from Richard provided me with the perfect opportunity to explore my dream.
I loved playing the piano because it transported me to other times and worlds. Each time I would perform, I felt like larger forces of inspiration would work through me to tell a story that our hearts know and understand. I experienced how magic could happen when becoming one with the audience, and funny things as well… During a concert in the Hague, a few years earlier, in the context of the National Youth Parliament, something unexpected happened….
The concert hall was filled with hundreds of people. My nerves were raging in my stomach, but I knew that once on stage this other force would guide me. All I needed to do, or so I thought, was to trust in the process through which I became larger than myself, to become an instrument for inspiration, hope, and connection. Only this time, the Universe had staged a comical twist, and not just a transcendental upliftment for our minds and hearts through the melodies of Mozart.
I started my performance, and to my shock, each time I hit this higher note on the keyboard the most awful dissonant sound came out of the piano. At first, I tried to continue, even considered avoiding that key altogether, until I realized I’d better get honest about what was going on with the audience. I stopped and opened the grand piano (which for some reason had been kept closed). I faced the audience and laughed, explaining how this terrible key requires further investigation. Thankfully people were friendly and laughed with me.
I bent over and looked at the snares of the dissonant key and there it was: A chocolate mars bar turned to stone sitting on the snare that Mozart needed to elevate our minds! Welcome to the modern world! I removed the hardened chocolate bar after more laughter from the audience, took a deep breath, and started my recital again. Thankfully now the keys were able to collaborate with the chords and melodies of Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor. Perhaps, the title of this lovely piece could have given me a hint of the unexpected already. The power of words and story!
Now back to the story I wanted to share— my meeting in Scotland with the revolutionary storyteller, in late August 1992. It was a magical full moon evening in the Scottish Highlands. The whole scene felt like something out of a movie. Richard Demarco had invited his friend from Romania, whose name I can’t remember. He was a man of the theatre, and during that magical evening in the Scottish highlands, he told us his story for social change.
We moved out of the car to enjoy the magical sight of the highlands with the full moon above us. The air was pleasant with a warm soft breeze. As we stood in the open fields, this Romanian hero started to tell us how he unintentionally became a revolution leader to help overthrow Nicolae Ceaușescu and his brutal regime. He explained how every Sunday, people would come to the Theatre to revive their hearts and listen to the stories at the Theatre that inspired them to dream of a better Romania, and a world in which they could be free. For many, he represented the soul of Romania and the spirit of a people free from oppression.
He explained how when the conditions for the revolution were ripe, the army came to him and begged him to lead the revolution. The crowds had become outraged, he said, and people were marching for revolutionary change. Death was in the air. The army general told him that because he had the trust of the people, he should lead the march and so he did. The theatre man had no intention of becoming a politician and explained the same to the army general. It was agreed that he would not stay in power after his role in leading this phase of the revolution was over. I listened in awe to his story and suddenly realized how sheltered my life in the Netherlands had been.
The story of this Romanian hero activated something deep within me, an ancient remembering of the power of stories for social change. I started to realize how our lives are woven into a far larger tapestry of meaning and happenings than we are consciously aware of. How our own lives can unknowingly and suddenly join a larger story that can catalyze an entire movement. At that moment, I made a promise to my own life, to the story waiting to be born in me: I promised myself to keep trusting the deeper narrative and purpose of my life, and the forces of life that were guiding me — whether I was conscious of this, or not.
In the days that followed, I met the great pianist John Bingham, who was then the head of keyboard at Trinity College of Music in London. As it happened, Richard had arranged for me to turn the pages of his music score during a concert in the beautiful Edinburgh Cathedral. And so it happened that by turning his pages, he turned a major page of my life. I asked him after his concert (while feeling all shy) if I may please play the piano for him the next day in private. He agreed and with a pounding heart, I played for him the following day.
After listening carefully and expressing how he felt touched by the emotional intensity of my playing, John Bingham offered me the possibility of a placement with him at Trinity College in London, for the following year. I gratefully accepted and promised to study really hard during the year I had planned as a bridge year for myself and that I would get back in touch a year later. We met again in March 1993, while he was on the jury for a Dutch piano competition. I played for him again and he offered me the placement at Trinity College. However, the Universe had again something else in mind…
A placement at Trinity College was an expensive affair. My parents didn’t have the funds for such an adventure. In June of 1993, I went to meet with an agency in the Netherlands that provided grants for talented young musicians. After my second meeting with John Bingham, I had sent out three letters to friends in the UK, who had promised to help me with accommodation and other support if I decided to study with John Bingham. To my surprise, all three letters returned to me unopened just a week before I was to meet with this funding agency.
One of the friends I had reached out to wrote to me to let me know what had happened. He was a young man my age who I had met during the Edinburgh Art Festival, and the son of a British lord. We enjoyed a marvelous time in the countryside of Scotland, just before my return to the Netherlands in August 1992. He had invited me to stay with him and his parents for a few days at their place, and I was delighted that this also included riding their horses! In his letter, he explained how they had received a notice from the post office to collect my letter, yet upon arrival discovered that my letter was no longer there and had been returned to me. Puzzled, he wrote to me to inquire what the letter had been about!
During my meeting with the funding agency, the manager looked up at me and said after some careful reflection: “I truly want to help you, but the way you move through the room and present yourself, doesn’t strike me as a typical musician. Are you sure that becoming a concert pianist is the path you are meant for? I just have this sense that there is something else that’s calling you…” I then told her what had happened with the three returned letters and we both laughed. She was right, my life was indeed meant for a different path. I felt passionate about inspiring people for a larger vision of who we can become, like the Romanian theatre man, but not just on stage as a concert pianist.
Several years earlier, at the age of 16, I had been elected as a Dutch delegate of the European Youth Parliament after many rounds of local and national selections. My life had changed dramatically for those last two years at secondary school. I now had to travel through Europe to attend and prepare for parliamentary and other political sessions, sometimes in parallel with the European Parliament. During this same period, I also attended many meetings with ministers, diplomats, and politicians, as part of their commitment to consult with the youth of Europe to learn about our ideas and visions for a united Europe. Then too, life had given me a behind-the-scenes experience, and this time in the making of politics and policy.
Learning became a lot more interesting and meaningful now that I had a voice in these real-life situations. I experienced first-hand the power of narrative and storytelling in debate, to explain key issues, and to rally support and engagement when it came time to vote. Shortly after my time in Edinburgh, at the age of 18, I was asked to join the international organizing team of the European Youth Parliament. Based on my musical abilities and passion for inspiring a larger vision of our future possibilities, they also asked me to organize and coordinate the European Youth Parliament concert of 1993, which completed the annual session.
Inspired by the story of this Romanian theatre man, I understood how music and theatre could truly unite people. The musicians who participated in the concert came from all over Europe and included countries who, back then, were not yet part of the European Union. While in Parliamentarian sessions, there used to be simultaneous translation, however during our concert practice sessions we had to find other ways to communicate and understand each other. For many, speaking English, German, or French was not easy. Music became our direct language for sharing our feelings and entered us immediately into a felt sense of togetherness. The concert was an amazing success, everyone had given their hearts and talents to make it work.
Through this whole experience, I discovered how arts and music are often more effective in building bridges between people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and languages, compared to the intellectual debates of the political landscapes in which I spent much of my time. I also experienced the power of putting minds and hearts together to work from a unifying vision that represents a larger story of our human potential.
Those were the early beginnings of the European Union, quite different from the bureaucratic European Union it has grown to become. During this time I also experienced the best and worst of human politics. My fellow students at school often used to tell me that if I ever decided to run for politics, to become the first prime minister of the Netherlands, they’d vote for me. Now thirty years later, the Netherlands still hasn’t had a female prime minister!
The lady from the Dutch funding agency, although not knowing me nor my story, had rightly intuited the story seeds of my path. Her intuition about me was spot on — like a guardian angel sent on my path to make sure I kept moving in the direction of my greater destiny. I had been so focused on wanting to become a concert pianist that I hadn’t noticed the larger patterns unfolding in my life and other opportunities that were presenting themselves.
When I realized that my path was not about becoming a concert pianist, I wondered whether I should explore the path of becoming an official diplomat instead. Or look for ways to work at higher levels of politics and policymaking. I thus enrolled in a Master’s degree in Law and Political Science, at Leiden University (the Netherlands). Several years into my degree, I decided that I was not made for diplomat material, as I won’t be able to only represent the formal positions of the nation-state — knowing that contemporary politics often fall short of the political leadership that is required for safeguarding our world and future. In other words, I was too outspoken to follow political etiquettes.
During the final year of my university studies, I left for South Africa. It was 1996 and apartheid had only been abolished a few years prior. I went to the University of Pretoria as an exchange student, where I studied the transformation of political regimes and the making of a new democracy in a post-apartheid South Africa, for writing my Mater’s thesis. The decision for this move was again an unusual story. I had gone to see The Lion King in the big cinema in Amsterdam. While watching the film I felt this incredible calling from Africa and had this persistent sense that I had to go to Pretoria.
Later that week, I inquired with the exchange office if there was an exchange program between Leiden and Pretoria University. The officer told me, “No, sorry, there isn’t, but you can go to Cape-Town or Durban? Why do you want to go to Pretoria?” How was I going to explain to her that it was based on a deeper intuition? “Never mind, I answered, it’s hard to explain, but I just have to go to Pretoria.” When I left the office, I wondered — But, how could this be? I know I am meant to go there.
One week later, a professor came to visit my university as the guest lecturer of my class in constitutional law. And he came from Pretoria University! Excited, I walked up to him after class and explained to him my wish to go to his university for the final year of my degree. He took up the idea, and soon after the first exchange program was created between Pretoria University and Leiden University, and I was the first student to go on that program.
My time in South Africa again opened me to many new adventures and stories, including a dangerous murder case in which I got entangled when I naively believed that the role of playing a female Sherlock Holmes was a good idea! More about that another time… My life was becoming more and more like the scenes out of a movie, so much so that even my friends couldn’t believe what I was getting myself into. I later moved to Australia, where I stayed for 8 years, but that’s also for another story...
Back to why I am sharing some of my life stories with you here. What I really want to ask you is: What is your story? What story seeds and patterns are alive in you, and which ones are you planting for our world and future? What are you telling yourself about your life as a story for social change?
The narrative you use to tell your story is one of the most powerful means by which you can shift your reality and influence change around you. Are you using narratives such as; “good things never happen to me,” or “I am just not that lucky,” or “I have to work hard for everything that happens in my life.” Or do you tell your story through narrative such as, “there is a deeper guidance in my life, which shows up in the most unexpected ways,” and, “I can trust my intuition and know that my life is meant for greater experiences,” and “I am living the most extraordinary life, and discover new things each time,” and “my life has meaning and purpose, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t know exactly what this is.” What’s the narrative of your story?
Our world in crisis needs compelling and inspiring narratives of the kinds of stories that can bring us together through these challenging times. Stories that invite us to discover and rise to the potential of our greater human selves. Stories that call for true leadership, vision, and action to become the change that’s needed. What is your story for the social change our world needs right now?