The Healing Benefits of Storytelling
by Mary Patricia Voell
Legacies, LLC | Personal, Family & Organizational Historians
Oral historian and author, Studs Terkel once said that it is our responsibility to record and preserve the living history that surrounds us. Many of us may feel that undercurrent, that inner voice which speaks to a ‘responsibility’ to advance personal history work from a hobby to what might be called a charge, an obligation given to us by those who came before.
The family historian role brings with it, dynamics and benefits across generations for storytellers, listeners and readers alike.
It has long been said that our greatest desire, greater even than the desire for happiness is the hope that, in the end, our lives mean something, an idiom echoed by Czech President, writer and philosopher, Vaclav Havel among others throughout history, who have reminded us that this need to tell our story is integral to our health and wellbeing.
This desire for meaning can be the impulse of our storied life. Each day we weave accounts into the circadian rhythm of our day as we exchange bite-size narratives of family, children, careers, vocations and vacations. These stories show how we fit into the great tapestry of life. Today however, many feel isolated and alone as families scatter around the globe while our technology-driven connectedness evolves. In one way, we are more in touch than ever, but are we confusing quantity with quality? Yes, we are at a crossroads.
Not only is our world moving faster each day and from one generation to the next, but in that speed, new generations (X,Y,Z, and beyond) may be losing the value of knowing their personal past. Advancements in our storytelling capabilities to preserve the stories continues to amaze me. But many in our present grey-haired tsunami who straddle multiple generations, with one foot in the past, want to share their institutional/family wisdom, lessons learned, insights found, and understandings gained when new generations may not. Or, more accurately, that it will certainly be different.
Native American cultures among others teach us that one’s wholeness is only complete when we acknowledge and listen to the spirits of our ancestors. In so many ways, we may have lost that knowing. Why?
David Weitzman in My Backyard History Book reminds us that, “Our history is not only lost to memory, but lost in translation, lost in crossing oceans, lost in moving from town to town or house to house, lost in fire, lost to time, lost when family members go their separate ways,” and if I may add, lost in youth, lost in arrogance, lost in the busyness of our lives, and lost in the acceleration of time.
How can we provide roots, and at the same time, wings to fashion a new world, and eventually, a new past that they may someday reflect upon?
One way is to look at and understand the hidden underlying nature of our work, not just it’s ‘bells and whistles’. We reveal and impart more than we may acknowledge in the understory of interpersonal story-capturing process.
There is healing in sharing our stories. Through the process of reminiscence, we learn to forgive others, and most importantly ourselves. In books such as The Art & Science of Reminiscing by Haught & Webster (2014) personal, interpersonal, cross cultural, and interdisciplinary relevance emerge.
Healing of Self
I’ve seldom considered myself a diary writer even though over the decades I’ve acquired many now fading notebooks with attempts to become one. Presently, I’m entering them into my own memoir so whomever wants to look into my Mary Poppins-like life doesn’t have to page through my youthful meanderings. This row-boat exercise, the ‘looking back to move forward’ has been a frightening venture as I learn new things about myself, find decisions that might not have been the best, see faces in photos or reread names, which honestly I don’t recall, and revisit moments that were filled with great love.
Healing of Relationships
In this age of hyperlinking, it’s more important than ever to understand the links between humans. Human brains are fundamentally wired to interact. We are a social species. Is this the lesson that social media in all its present and future forms, is here to teach us? Our lives, our stories overlap and are interdependent. In a post following the completion of a book, Kimberly writes: "I saw Jack in a new light. I finally heard his inner story, something he was unable to express."
The Healing is in the Telling
Anthropologists note that storytelling could have persisted in human culture because it promoted social cohesion among groups and served as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to future generations. Nick, a Legacies client is, in his own words, an over-the-top storyteller whose life is defined by the stories he’s lived and continues to tell his family and friends who are enthralled and engrossed by his yarns. He recently shared with me that, “Now that I’ve recorded my often-told stories, I find it’s time to create new ones.”
The Healing is in the Repetition
“Daddy tell me that story again”. There is something in the repetition, the continual telling of the story for both children and older adults. For those working with an elderly population, we often witness the therapeutic nature of repetitive storytelling.
The Healing is in the Timing
Joseph Bruchac in The Storytelling Seasons teaches us that certain stories were to be told only at certain times. He quotes Lenore Kesshig-Tobias: “Most traditional stories were told at nighttime in the winter. Others were told only in ceremonies. The timing of the story was just as important as the telling.”
The Healing is in the Vocalization
I love hearing a great yarn told by a practiced storyteller. They choose just the right word, the right inflection, the right description as they weave us in and around their tales, captivating our attention while giving oral and written voice to life’s experiences.
The Healing is in the Language
Storytelling uses a combination of nighttime talk, the language of our subconscious with images and fantasies when we express our deepest self, and daytime talk of declarative sentences and explanation.
Why do we tell our stories? Because we Can!
George Mallory is most famous for three immortal words he spoke to a New York Times reporter in 1923 — “Because it’s there” — which has echoed throughout western culture. Whether we act as autobiographers, memoir or ghost-writers, or coaching others to write their own, there are more stories to be told – more than we can imagine, as we play an integral role in saving history and recognizing the healing power of having one’s story recorded, and that eventually, as younger generations mature, they will appreciate having their roots documented.
A Roaring Twenties thank you to all who capture and preserve the stories of a lifetime - before it’s too late.