Category Archives for Healing power of stories

Storytelling for a peaceful world

My talented storyteller friend, Liz Weir, sent me the link to Kiran Singh Sirah’s stirring talk on the power of stories “to change the world.” If you’ve ever wondered why the ancient art of storytelling has such cachet these days, spend a quarter of an hour watching this inspiring video. Then think of your own life, your work, your family, your friends and how your stories just might start a ripple that changes the world.

 

A story brought him home

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

The children from the Seattle hospital’s burn unit were brought in on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Some were ambulatory and pushed IV poles. The youngest was 5, the oldest 15. The 15-year-old was burned over most of his body. He faced years of skin grafts and a lifetime of unwanted attention from people who would not know how to react.

I was having the same trouble people outside the hospital would have with these children, wondering where to put my eyes, how to reach beyond the disfigured surface to the spirit within. The stories I had chosen seemed puny in the face of their overwhelming needs.

I decided to tell them a story I had learned from Bill Harley called “The Freedom Bird.” It is the story of a hunter who shoots a magnificent golden bird, only to find that he cannot kill it, no matter what he does. It is the Freedom Bird, irrepressible, rising from any adversity. The violence often makes adults uncomfortable, but children love it.

Halfway into the story, I looked at the 15-year-old. In my mouth was a story of hacking, boiling, and burying. In front of me was a boy who had lived the bird’s fate, through fire, surgeries, and pain. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me.

The floor refused. I finished the story, tucked my tail between my legs, and slunk home. For the next week I practiced mental flagellation, knowing I should call the burn unit and apologize, putting it off until tomorrow.

The burn unit called first. One of the staff members wanted to tell me about the 15-year-old boy. He had been despondent, wishing he could die. The story changed his mind. Each time the hunter shot or hacked or buried the bird, the creature rose like the phoenix, until at last the hunter realized that he was trying to destroy an indomitable spirit. The boy decided he was the Freedom Bird. No fire or surgery or pain, no insensitive staring or comment would destroy his spirit. He would rise and rise again.

That boy taught me to trust the stories that call to me, to give them truly, knowing that they may heal or harm, but that I cannot predict how anyone hearing them will react. Life is in control, not me. A burned child may see the Freedom Bird as a reflection of the years of agony and reversals he faces. Or he may see in it the soaring of his own brave spirit.

I continue to learn to let go of the need to control. If we believe we can always choose the right stories and tell them at the right time, we are fooling ourselves. Everyone who hears our stories filters them through the lens of experience. We cannot know the hearts and lives of all our listeners. What we can do is tell with care and love, sharing the stories that touch our own lives, that make us laugh or cry or ponder. Release stories like butterflies, knowing they will fly their own crooked paths and land wherever they will.

[This essay first appeared in The Healing Heart: Communities as part of a longer piece, “Seven Lessons”.]

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors

Photo by mconnors, via morgueFile

Photo by mconnors, via morgueFile

In our western, disease-care system, the power of stories has been pushed to the periphery, even though they are central to the spirit that promotes or undermines our healing. Fortunately, a whole field of narrative medicine is blossoming. Rachel Naomi Remen was one of the first people to introduce me to the field, then Rita Charon and Jack Coulehan.

After I moved to British Columbia, I met Arthur Frank and read his powerful book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. I became aware of a B.C. program to honour stories, the Patient Voices Network and Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program.

So when James Borton contacted me about his new book, The Art of Medicine in Metaphor – A Collection of Poems and Narratives, he piqued my interest.

Borton is a teaching associate in the Department of English at Coastal Carolina University. He is also a blogger (All Heart Matters) and writer on medical humanities. Here’s how he describes the incident that prompted him to collect the poems and stories of people’s experiences with health care:

Three years ago I learned a painful lesson about how a patient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It’s no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.

In 2011 he organized a symposium for physicians and professors, “The Art of Medicine: Metaphors & Narratives.” And in courses and workshops, he gathered the stories of medical personnel and patients. Now he has published an anthology of illness narratives, told through stories and poetry. In his foreword to the book, Dr. Coulehan writes:

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors represents the process of encountering illness by dividing it into three stages—recognition, tension, and transformation—that form sequential sections of the book. While there is often overlap, the stages constitute a useful way of conceptualizing the material. First, the person’s familiar world is swept away. A wave of new images and alien feelings overwhelms them and he or she must attend to (recognize) the changed reality. Second, the person’s language, beliefs, and emotional resources confront this new world of illness, creating tension. Finally, but unfortunately not always, the person emerges with greater self-understanding (transformation). The dynamo that drives this process is language with many resources—mental, emotional, verbal, and written.

Borton sent several searing excerpts from the book, including Debra McQueen’s story of a young man dying of AIDS and his determination to travel to the Philippines to see a faith healer. Sam Watson contributed a poem about the moments between being wheeled into the operating room and succumbing to ether, ending in a breathtaking moment of clarity. Patricia Dale’s story of depression and self cutting was painful to read, yet ended with hope.

The seed of healing lies within our illness narratives. Our bodies eventually succumb to age, illness, accidents and death. No matter how much our medically trained allies patch our bodies, we all carry around an expiry date. We give meaning to our fleeting journey through our stories.

Barry Lopez described it well in Crow and Weasel:

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

When storytelling is too powerful

Since 2001 the Center for Women’s Global Leadership has designated November 25th to December 10th as 16 Days of Action on Violence Against Women. This year the Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society is participating through a “Write for Rights Blog-A-Thon”. The purpose of the blog-a-thon is to raise awareness about violence against women, encourage support of local work that is being done to assist survivors of violence, and demonstrate solidarity with women affected by violence.

The Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society works tirelessly for social justice. Learn more about how you can help by visiting their Web site. Read stories of hope and survival on their inspiring Beyond Crisis site.

road rash is in fashion

Photo by Nathan Lewis, via Flickr Creative Commons

The request

“We want you to tell stories about violence against women. It’s for a national conference.”

My husband and I were entertainers—storytellers and musicians—not therapists, so we hesitated. The organizers of a conference on domestic violence wanted us to not only tell stories about the issues but to actually portray rising tension, culminating in an episode of violence between us.

They hit us in our weak spot. They actually believed in the power of storytelling to thread the labyrinth of professional distance and find the soft center, the place where the barrier of protection is breached. Still, we refused until they promised to let the audience know what they had asked us to do and to make sure counselors were on hand afterward.

Both victims of abuse and abusers sit in any audience. If we were as effective as the organizers hoped we would be, we would be unleashing emotions that might shatter the shields of degrees, licenses, and professional objectivity. The conference committee understood our concern, agreed to our terms, and sent a contract.

The performance

We chose stories from folklore and mythology that were metaphors, thinking they would provide just enough distance for safety. We added some contemporary songs. Around them we wove the thread of tension between us that was to culminate in my husband’s pretending to hit me. Rehearsing was emotionally draining.

On the day of the performance, the organizers failed us. They did not explain to the audience of counselors, social workers, physicians, and therapists what they had asked us to do. And we realized in the aftermath that they also did nothing to make sure counseling was available for those who saw their own stories played out before them.

In the silence at the end of our performance, we knew we had met the organizers’ hopes. The audience sat in that quiet space where even moving feels like sacrilege. Then someone broke the spell, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

That’s when the organizers failed us again. They were to lead the question period but left us to do it instead. Most of the questions were variations on the first, and they were all aimed at trying to get my husband to tell them when and why he had started abusing me.

In the hours that followed, many women waited until they could catch me on my own. They wanted to pour out their own sorrows, confusions and fears, the complicated ties that kept them from leaving abusive relationships.

The acknowledgement

The only person who would speak to my husband, whom the group now identified as a monster, was a woman who approached us together.

“Thank you,” she said. “You got it right. That’s exactly how it starts.”

She was one of the speakers, a woman who had just been released from prison. She had murdered her husband after years of horrendous abuse. Gradual awareness of the vulnerability of women in abusive relationships had led to her being pardoned. She had become a powerful speaker, sharing her story in an effort to make the world safe for women being battered by their partners.

Her appreciation was the one bright spot in the day for us. If we had had any lingering doubts about the power of storytelling, they disappeared that day. The experience drove home a lesson we had tried to impress on the conference organizers, that finding the dark heart of human emotion is accompanied by responsibility. What we had feared, and the reason for our insistence they set the context for the performance and then offer counseling, had proven true. We had the capacity to reach inside the hearts of those who had experienced, or perpetrated, domestic violence.

We were asked to perform at the next year’s conference. This time we refused until they agreed to set the performance up so the audience knew what to expect and then to clearly identify where anyone traumatized could receive help immediately. They did a miserable job on both counts so we never agreed to participate again, but at least the second year we built into the performance a lifeline that left the audience more hopeful and more empowered.

The world we want

Our storytelling at those two conferences and my community development work with numerous women’s groups before and after were driven by the vision of a world where women no longer have to be warned not to go out alone after dark, a world where no one is afraid to go home, where no woman has to turn herself into a pretzel trying to appease her abuser. That is a story worth working for.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to imperil the lives and emotions of millions of women. They are our neighbours and friends. They are the family members who are afraid at home and shamed into believing they are at fault. Their stories haunt me.

Until the assault on women ends, none of us is truly safe. But I believe a different world is possible, and it is the world envisioned by Donna Milner in the poem she wrote for a production of The Vagina Monologues in Williams Lake. She titled the poem, “A community, a world without violence against women or children.”

Read it, and let’s work together for that day.

Telling a new story

Lips on face stone sculpture

Lips on face stone sculpture, photo by Photos8.com

David Korten’s writings often move me. They always make me think. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, a publication that always poses solutions instead of just pointing out problems.

In the August 8, 2011, online edition, he throws out a challenge to culture workers. He calls on those in media, education, religion and the arts to use their influence to tell a new story. He writes, “For better or worse, you are engaged in crafting and propagating the cultural stories that serve either to legitimate the devastation the old economy causes or shine a light on the possibilities of the new economy.”

Whether we stand in front of an audience or work in the broad field of organizational narrative, storytellers bear a responsibility that is, at the same time, an exciting opportunity. Our stories can shore up a status quo that keeps the world teetering on the brink of global disaster. Or they can engender a sense of possibility that will lead us to something sane and life-affirming.

I’m reminded of the four levels folklorist Barre Toelken once told me characterized Navajo storytelling. That was many years ago, and my memory has likely shifted the explanations to fit my own sense of the impact of storytelling. But roughly, these are the four levels:

  • Entertainment: The first task of the storyteller is to capture the audience’s imagination.
  • Education: Once imagination is focused, learning can begin.
  • Spirituality: Here the possibility of transformation begins.
  • Witchcraft: Only a shaman can safely tell stories at this level because they unleash forces that cannot be contained in less skilled hands.

From many directions we hear stories that seem to have skipped right over the third level and are wreaking havoc on our environment, economies, and family lives. They are told by culture workers who have sold their talents for pieces of silver, skilled liars whose arguments play out in election campaigns and corporate marketing.

Korten’s charge to artists is one storytellers can answer:

“Talented artists can help us see beauty, meaning, and possibility where it may otherwise escape our attention. They can take us on an imaginary journey to a future no one has yet visited to experience possibilities we may not have imagined. Our movement needs the contribution of millions of artists devoted to liberating human consciousness.”

The YES! essay is based on the 2nd edition of David Korten’s important and encouraging book, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth.

Changing stories of a changing climate

For the Inuit of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador, ignoring global warming is not an option. As winters warm and ice melts, their traditional ways are threatened. The Inuit have become one of the canaries in the climate-change coal mine. In the memories of elders are stories of change and loss that can help the rest of the world understand how a shifting climate will affect our spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health.

So in 2009-2010 First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (Health Canada) funded “Changing Climate, Changing Health, Changing Stories”. This was a qualitative research project to examine “the impacts of climate change on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being” (from Ashlee Cunsolo Willox’s project Web site).

Health Canada has understood the power and importance of stories to community well-being for decades. They have been in the forefront of employing narrative evaluation and research to understand social phenomena. So it is not surprising they chose to support this digital storytelling project.

Beyond the immediate focus of looking at the impacts of a changing climate, the project has led to development of a digital storytelling center in Rigolet and the hope this remote community can become a leader in showing how community narratives can preserve the past and help create the future.

Read more:

Perhaps the saddest reflection of all is this: “The stories we tell of today will one day be the stories of the past.”

 

 

Medicine circles back to stories

Stethoscope

Doctor and patient in City Hospital Tuberculosis Division, 1927 (Item 2721, Engineering Department Photographic Negatives (Record Series 2613-07), Seattle Municipal Archives, from Flickr Creative Commons)

The invention of the stethoscope spelled the end of story-based medicine. That claim caught my attention when I was listening to White Coat Black Art on CBC. Dr. Brian Goldman, the show’s host, was interviewing Stanley Reiser, a medical historian.

In his 2009 book, Technological Medicine: The Changing World of Doctors and Patients, Reiser wrote, “Before stethoscopes, the coin of evaluation was words—the doctor learned about an illness from the patient’s story of the events and sensations marking its passage.”

Diagnoses were often made via letters. Patients wrote detailed descriptions of their symptoms, the remedies they had tried, and their emotional state. Not every physician was comfortable with this. Some complained of patients’ inabilities to accurately describe their illnesses. Others chided doctors for subtly guiding the narratives and missing the correct diagnosis.

In 1816 René Laennic, a 35-year-old French doctor, invented an instrument that would allow him to listen to a woman’s chest without violating her modesty. The stethoscope quickly became popular and “took the mantle of illness out of the hands of patients and placed it in the doctor’s orbit.” (Reiser)

When Dr. Goldman interviewed him for White Coat Black Art, Reiser said the stethoscope “led to a seismic shift in how doctors evaluated illness and their relationship with the patient, which changed as they became more interested in the evidence from the body and less interested in the evidence from the story.” The new technology “made doctors more interested in the physical findings of disease than in the life of the patient.”

Reiser is concerned that over-reliance on technology has lessened physicians’ openness to the patient as a whole person rather than a collection of symptoms. But there’s a movement toward storytelling in medicine, generally referred to as “narrative medicine”.

Narrative medicine is, in many ways, a return to pre-stethoscope days. Dr. Rita Charon, who coined the phrase in 2000, describes it as “medicine practised by someone who knows what to do with stories”. In “What to do with stories: The sciences of narrative medicine”, she writes, “Whether sick or well, the reader of an illness narrative is summoned by the author to join with the teller—to form community that can combat the isolation of illness.” [Canadian Family Physician August 2007 vol. 53 no. 8 1265-1267]

Illness is a lonely journey, particularly when it’s chronic or when the impact is life threatening. It’s lonely for the person who is ill and for those who are caretakers. Narrative medicine takes this into account, placing the illness in the context of a life rather than the narrow confines of symptoms.

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