Written by Dr Miriam Stoppard OBE
All of my grandchildren have been fascinated by stories I could tell about my childhood and would listen for hours to my escapades. They particularly liked to be told about pranks but as they got older they wanted to hear more about the difficulties I’d encountered, the obstacles I’d overcome and the disappointments I’d had to deal with. They were learning about life and they were eager pupils.
All grandchildren are the same given a talkative grandparent. Family stories help them to find out who they are, how they fit into their tribe and how the world works. Granny’s tales serve the same purpose as fairy tales – metaphors for life.
At the other end of life, remembering our past adventures reinforces who we are and what our lives have meant. Talking over old times, listening to favourite music and replaying memories awakens our sense of the past and helps us live again good times. It’s pleasant for everyone but essential for people whose memory is in decline. People with Alzheimer’s come alive when they relive past times; they feel closer to people and they have moments of precious clarity.
Storytelling is part of who we are. It’s sprung up at the beginning of human history, possibly to hand down the wisdom of past generations, including mental and physical wellbeing. An emphasis on relaxation, imagery, and lifestyle change gradually coalesced around storytelling as it was realised it could be used in psychological healing. There’s a different story for almost every problem, just about everything from addiction and depression to divorce and grief.
There again a great story seldom has just one ‘point’ or ‘punch line’ – it nearly always contains many layers of meaning. Exploring them, reading and listening to stories leads on to creativity. Romantic stories full of vivid descriptions can engage listeners so that the story becomes an experience, almost like a dream, especially if stories can transport you to other times and places. You’ll forget about time passing, even where you are. In submerging yourself into stories of hardship, adventure, wisdom and hope, you’ll find courage, persistence, daring and friendship when times are tough.
Stories teach us the importance of the resilience of the human spirit and can be helpful, even healing, for people going through difficult experiences or transitions in their lives. Listening to peoples’ stories about adjusting to disabling conditions, living with memories of abuse or assault, grieving for the loss of loved ones, and learning how to cope with what life has dealt them is strengthening for everyone.
With teenagers, young adults and children, storytelling can be vital in helping them engage with thought-provoking situations, and identify with the characters. That often leads to increased self-knowledge, especially for young people who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally.
Through storytelling, it’s possible for people to gain insights that lead to behavioural change, with consequent improvement in the quality of their lives. We think of stories as oral but they needn’t be. Stories may be told through writing, through art or through photos. There’s more than one way to tell a story. Stories communicate knowledge, messages, beliefs, and values and are a unique way to share a common history with our friends and family, even to breaking the ice with strangers.
In another setting, stories can be incredibly powerful therapeutic tools. They help to see new points of view by replacing rigidly held views about life. They promote flexibility of thought by removing everyday constraints. Supplying this new perspective, they help people reclaim optimism for the future. They can fuel their imagination with the energy necessary to set out goals and attain them. They might even stimulate the immune system and speed recovery in people who are ill. Psychotherapy and counselling often co-opts storytelling as a metaphor for life. In the pattern of a story we can unconsciously find the true meaning of a situation.
Stories have great power because they’re capable of furnishing optimism, hope and independence in unhappy people. They can enhance our own problem solving skills too, as well as making us better able to help others with theirs. I’m forced to believe that stories have a power and force way beyond the value we usually give them. They affect us at a deep subconscious level. Who can conjecture how deeply they stir the mind and the body promoting healing, recovery and wellbeing?