Just tell them the truth: A Nobel Prize co-recipient and the power of stories

I spent about an hour Tuesday night talking with Setsuko Thurlow. A month ago, she was in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

About 63 years before that, she was a student at Lynchburg College — where I work, and where she is coming as commencement speaker in May. She granted my request for an interview so I can write an article about her life experiences and her role in the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

You’ll have to wait for the spring 2018 issue of Lynchburg College Magazine for the full story. But I wanted to share one lesson I see as a common theme throughout her life story.

A remarkable life

Setsuko survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a 13-year-old student. She started speaking publicly about that experience when she was a student here in Lynchburg, but it was a couple of decades later when public advocacy for nuclear disarmament became the major focus of her life. She began seeking opportunities to educate people in Toronto, where she has lived most of her adult life, about the devastation caused by nuclear weapons. This effort snowballed into more and more opportunities — opportunities that resulted in her standing behind a podium in Oslo and addressing the world.

Setsuko Thurlow at the podium during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony
Photo from ICAN

ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to promote and pass a treaty in the U.N. last summer that would ban nuclear weapons and require disarmament. It’s a largely symbolic treaty (the countries that actually have nuclear weapons have no intentions of signing on) but supporters hope the symbol will grant strength to their cause and their arguments and eventually result in a world where leaders don’t boast about their nuclear arsenals, and where millions of lives could not be lost with the touch of one button.

I asked Setsuko about her role in getting the U.N. treaty passed. She quickly deferred credit to everyone else involved — the other ICAN volunteers, the NGOs who promoted activities in different countries around the world, and the diplomats who negotiated and voted for the treaty. Her role was simply to tell her story.

“My role has always been as a survivor [to] just tell them the truth of the experience I had,” she said.

Just tell them the truth.

Setsuko taught me that telling the truth does matter. For decades she has been telling the truth of what happened to her in Hiroshima in 1945, on the day that the bomb with unheard-of power fell and in the weeks and months after. At first, people did not listen. A month ago when she spoke in Oslo, the world listened.

I believe stories change hearts, minds, and lives. Whether yours is a heartbreaking #metoo story, a testimony of a religious experience, a childhood memory that helps you teach your children, or a motivating moment that ignites teamwork among your coworkers, telling the truth about your experience will do more to actually sway hearts than a list of facts that might engage minds. You need both, but the story will open the heart.

When you share your story and someone listens, they get to see the world from the perspective of your experience. They walk a mile in your shoes and come away knowing that the world is different than they had realized. That knowledge will eventually work its way into their actions.

What if you share your story and no one listens?

Do like Setsuko Thurlow did. Keep telling your story.

Just tell them the truth.