“There’s a hero, if you look inside yourself” ~ Mariah Carey
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, before there were digital reminders everywhere, before we measured life with clocks strapped to our wrists, before seconds and minutes were so crucial to our financial wellbeing, there lived in a kingdom now almost forgotten, a small child who was destined to shape the future of the universe. I bet you’d like to hear the rest of the story. So would I. But it is a tale that has yet to be fully told. It’s waiting for some more beginning, a compelling middle, and a happy (or even a-not-so-happy) ending. In that way, it is like our own stories waiting to be told. Because it is well known that nothing starts without a story.
The telling of your own personal story is one of the most important things you can do. The unique journey each of us travels is far from insignificant. Nothing will ever duplicate it and nobody can ever experience the life given so exclusively for you. It is the story of a hero. The triumphs, trials, adventures, adversities, joys, and tragedies tell a tale which absolutely must be told. It is more than a shame to keep its’ passages secret. If you do…if it remains hidden…then how will this life be of benefit to others? No matter how young or old, you have lived and learned. You have fought and survived. Revealing those truths will serve as a touchstone for someone else if only you are willing to share them.
A Powerful Medicine; Healing the Hero with Listeners
I have always been a storyteller. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting by a fireplace telling scary sagas to delight my little cousins, practicing jokes to tell friends, and making up fairy tales for my children. But I found little value in my own story until I connected with Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is all about people sharing their life experiences. This is the first step in their recovery from addictive disorders. The Big Book of AA tells its followers; “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it — then you are ready to take certain steps.” It then goes on to devote about 1/3 of the book to personal stories. This is a foundation of their prescribed process of healing. I cannot count the number of times when a chosen speaker disclosed the tale of his life only to have one or more people in the group come up to him saying something amounting to; “I felt like you just told my story. I always thought I was alone in what I have been through.” The power of such storytelling has healed thousands of people over the years. Suddenly we unique individuals are all connected through a common journey.
“When we tell our stories and others bear witness, the notion that we are disconnected beings suffering alone dissolves under the weight of evidence that this whole concept is merely an illusion and that millions of others are suffering just like us.” ~ Lissa Rankin M.D in Psychology Today
There is evidence which supports the notion that listening to personal stories helps to control high blood pressure as effectively as the addition of more medications. The Annals of Internal Medicine has published results of a study which monitored the blood pressure of nearly 300 African-American patients who lived in urban areas and had known hypertension. The researchers at three-month intervals gave half the patients videos of similar patients telling stories about their own experiences.
The rest of the patients received videos of more generic and impersonal health announcements on topics like dealing with stress. While all the patients who received the storytelling DVD had better blood pressure control on average, those who started out with uncontrolled hypertension were able to achieve and maintain a drop as significant as it had been for patients in previous trials testing drug regimens. Dr. Thomas K. Houston, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass tells us that “Storytelling is human. We learn through stories, and we use them to make sense of our lives. It’s a natural extension to think that we could use stories to improve our health.”
There are other health benefits to telling your story and listening to someone else telling their story. Heath care experts advise us that you actually turn off the body’s stress responses and toxic stress hormones. At the same time relaxation responses turn on increasing oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins. Not only does this turn on your self-repair mechanisms and function as preventative medicine (or treatment if you’re sick), it also relaxes your nervous system and helps reduce depression, anxiety, fear, anger, and feelings of disconnection.
When thinking about the healing power of storytelling, I am reminded of a version the ancient King Arthur, Fisher King, tale in which Arthur is mortally wounded in battle but is unable to die due to a magical spell cast by Merlin who informs him that the only way his wound can heal is by pouring liquid over it from Jesus’ cup from The Last Supper, The Holy Grail. Arthur sends his knights to the four corners of the world searching for it to no avail. The king lies on a table in the great hall suffering unbearable pain from the open, festering gash in his side. One day, the cooks’ boy brings Arthur his dinner finding the horrible sight of suffering.
He innocently inquires what has happened. Arthur summons his strength and tells the boy his story from Excalibur in the stone, the Round Table, the battle with The Black Knight which left him in such a condition, and a futile search for The Grail. The boy asks Arthur to describe the cup only to reveal that he has just seen such a vessel. It was located just out of sight behind a curtain in the room where the king lay. Arthur commands the boy to retrieve the cup. They pour wine and water over the wound and it disappears immediately. All that was needed for healing was the teller of the story, a willing listener, and faith that the answers are always nearby.
Playback; Bringing Stories to Life & Life to Communities
“To be heard…really listened to and understood…is such a gift. But to tell your story and see it come to life through Playback is simply stunning. Playback helped us laugh until our sides hurt, cry with empathy, gasp with recognition. Words can barely express how exceptional the experience of Playback truly is.” ~ Pastor Carla Meisterman, Balmoral Presbyterian Church, Memphis, TN
There is a community based movement called Playback International which began in upstate New York in 1975. Since its inception, their concept of instant improvisational theatre has spread across the globe to six continents. Playback can be found in cities all around the United States from New York, to Memphis, to Austin to San Francisco. Playback Theatre happens in theatres, workshops, retreats, schools, businesses , clinical settings, and churches. Audiences or group members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot. It draws people and communities closer as they experience their common humanity.
I spent part of a day with one of the Playback Memphis programs recently. This group, called Performing the Peace “brings police officers, ex-offenders and youth together in a safe and open setting in which the participants examine and explore the barriers and solutions to positive community police relations.” But it is so much more than that. Executive Director Virginia Murphy, who facilitated the group during my visit, says that Performing the Peace “helps people be human with each other.” A mother of two preteen boys, Murphy has dedicated her life to connecting people from all walks of life. She is convinced there is no better way than telling, listening to and then acting out personal stories. I must agree. An hour and a half with members of Performing the Peace was akin to the many psychodramas I conducted as a therapist for abused teenagers and with adults who struggle with substance abuse disorders. But, once again, it was so much more than that. This unlikely mix of police officers and folks who had been released from prison shared their deepest joys, sorrows , and stressors. They did not hand out advice. They offered listening ears, empathy and real compassion. Then, near the end of the group, Playback members acted out some of the stories. It left everyone more connected than I have ever experience in such a short time. The open dialog between members of the Memphis Police Department and people who have been through the criminal justice system create previously unimaginable connecting. One of the officers described to me how he is doing Mindfulness walks through the most violent streets in the city.
If you want to make your story come to life and would like to build community in your area, I strongly suggest that you contact a local Playback Theatre. They are eager to include everyone.
A Golden Age of Storytelling; Unveiling Your Hero
As I have asserted, you are the hero in a novel that no one else can write. If you leave it untold we will all be deprived. And now, in this golden age of storytelling, the ways to unfold, write, verbalize and record personal stories are opened through a variety of forums. I will mention three of my favorites;
StoryCorps has studios around the country in which you can record the stories of people who have given meaning to your life. They are played regularly on NPR and even stored at The Library of Congress. StoryCorps even has an app for your mobile device so that you can record and upload these stories from the comfort of your own home.
Our friends at ChaplainUSA have been digitally capturing the stories of heroic American Police Chaplains at their online site. The words of wisdom and compassion overflow as you watch the videos presented.
Getting Started; Know What Makes You Unique By Creating Six-Word Memoirs
Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. His response was this;
“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Back in November 2006, SMITH Magazine asked readers to send in their own Six-Word Memoirs. They were meant to be short life stories which would be shared in the publication. So many people responded that the Six-Word Memoir project formed and grew wings. Stories have ranged from the bittersweet (“Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”) and poignant (“I still make coffee for two”) to the inspirational (“Business school? Bah! Pop music? Hurrah”) and hilarious (“I like big butts, can’t lie”).
The Six-Word Memoir project has become a global phenomenon and a bestselling book series. Six-Word Memoirs have been featured in hundreds of media outlets from NPR to The New Yorker and covered on tens of thousands of blogs. Hundreds of thousands of people have shared their own short life story as well as in classrooms, churches, and at live Six-Word “slams” across the world.
I have used the Six-Word Memoir project in counseling groups and as an interactive presentation for over a decade. Initially, I used it as an icebreaker but soon it became a powerful tool to inspire and encourage conversations which get to the bottom of how kids and adults are experiencing their lives. The memoirs disclose in six words what might have been impossible otherwise.
The Six-Word Memoir is a great way to get started with the process of writing your story. It gives a foundation for where you are right now and provides insight into your unique journey.
You can download instructions on how to write your Six-Word Memoir below.
Write Now; There Is No Time Like The Present
The process of writing your story, whether using the Six-Word Memoir or some other method can only begin with your effort here and now. There is no time like the present.
Our stories carry messages of empathy, compassion, honesty, and faith. They will connect us in ways like no other. A kind of spiritual awakening occurs when we finally discover that we are, on one hand unique, and on the other hand never alone in our struggle. For, as Joseph Campbell said, the heroes of all time go before us.