How Stories Save Us

Stories can heal and transform us. They can also become beacons of hope.

Quite a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult personal time, I came across a book about the inherent healing power of telling our stories. No matter how scattered or flawed our lives may appear, as we tell our stories, we gain something. Patterns emerge from seeming chaos, and our lives begin to make sense. It may be dreadful, agonizing sense, but even tragedies have order and consequence. I found that over time, the way I told my story changed, reflecting my recovery process and new insight.

The mirror side of story-telling is story-listening. While a confidential diary or journal can be highly useful, having someone hear our words can be transformative, especially if all that person does is listening. Not judging, not analyzing, not wondering how to respond, just taking in our words, a silent partner on our journey. Often we feel less alone in retrospect, no matter how isolated and desperate we might have been at the time. Additionally, a compassionate listener invites us to be kinder with ourselves.

Perhaps this is how Twelve Step programs work, apart from any Higher Power mysticism or Steps: that by simply hearing our own voices relate our histories, and having the experience of being heard, we open the door to viewing ourselves through the lens of new possibilities.

Personal storytelling calls for discretion, of course. Although it may be true that “we are only as sick as our secrets,” casually (or not-so-casually) violating a confidence from someone else is not the same as choosing to include the listener in our own private lives. Some of us never learned healthy boundaries about what is safe to share, and when, and with whom. We, or others, can be harmed by indiscriminate broadcasting of embarrassing, illegal, or otherwise sensitive information. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about, on the other hand, is as much about the journey as it is the facts.

Stories can get us through dark times by giving us hope and inspiring empathy. Stories work by creating a bond between the narrator or central character and the listener/reader. Who wants to read a story about a person you care nothing about? And if that appealing character has a different history or journey, or learns something the reader never experienced, so much the better. We accompany them into darkness and out again.

Hopeful stories provide an antidote to fear-driven stories. We find allies in unexpected places. Who would have thought that scruffy old Strider would turn out to be Aragorn (not me, not the first time I read The Lord of the Rings)? They remind us that even in times when all seems bleak, the tide can and does turn. Spring follows winter’s desolation. We, too, can be saved. Or, more to the point, we too are capable of setting aside those fears and reaching out to those in need.

I have a treasure trove of stories I come back to again and again. They re-kindle hope in me but also when I tell them, they create a bridge of empathy, even with people who appear to be “on the other side” of arguments. One story I heard in an inter-faith workshop, from a Catholic woman who had worked with The Compassionate Listening Project in the Middle East. She said that she and her colleagues listened to people from different sides of the conflict there, and that as the speakers made their points and felt their experiences valued, their stances softened. Each side became more willing to look at mutually beneficial solutions and to acknowledge the suffering and aspirations of the other.

So stories of hope and positive change affect not only the storytellers but the listeners. A recent blog post on the website of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) put it this way:

Fortunately, research also shows that messages framed in terms of hope, especially when coupled with messages that include positive feedback, can counter fearmongering effectively. Hope-based messages can also help people change their minds about key issues. Why? Because when people have made up their minds about an issue, they are prone to only hear facts that support their position – especially if they are already stressed and the facts they hear are framed in terms of fear. But, when people hear messages framed in terms of hope and positive feedback, they are able to digest new information in ways that can ultimately lead to a shift in perspective.

As we move through troubled times, let’s do our best to create and tell – and re-tell as many times as necessary – those stories.

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