When the world around us feels too overwhelming to process — when we can’t make sense of what’s happening or why it’s happening — we can turn to storytelling for comfort, connection, and healing.
“Many stories matter.
Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign.
But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize.
Stories can break the dignity of a people.
But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Human beings have told stories as long as human beings have existed. We tell stories to humanize, entertain, teach, activate, and memorialize ourselves and each other. We may not all be great storytellers, but every single one of us has a great story to tell. When the world around us feels too overwhelming to process — when we can’t make sense of what’s happening or why it’s happening — we can turn to storytelling for comfort, connection, and healing.
When we ask people how they are doing or what they did over the weekend, we are asking for them to tell us a story. We are activating the connection that storytelling can create between people. This solicitation of stories from other people is a profound instinct in all of us; unfortunately, our modern society has conditioned us to neutralize this instinct by creating the social expectation that the correct response to a storytelling solicitation is a superficial nonanswer that will serve as social politeness without risking any real connection created by any real stories told.
We don’t have the luxury of social politeness sans real human connection anymore. We cannot afford to keep neutralizing our storytelling instinct because the price we are paying — our overall wellness and mental health — is too steep. We need to tell our stories and create spaces where we actively listen to others tell their stories.
Buffalo, NY. Uvalde, TX. Highland Park, IL.
Roe v. Wade. Women’s bodies. Women’s freedoms. Vega v. Tekoh. Miranda rights. Police accountability. Griswold v. Connecticut? Lawrence v. Texas? Obergefell v. Hodges?
These are just a few of the words that are bouncing around in my head today. The words crash into other thoughts scattering focus and exhausting cognitive processes. These are just the words of the day. A week ago, Highland Park wasn’t on the list. A month ago, Miranda rights weren’t on the list. The list keeps changing, but it doesn’t seem to be decreasing in length or pain intensity. We can’t ignore, forget, or resolve our way out of the words causing havoc in our brains. But we can put these words to work through the stories we tell, solicit, and listen to. Storytelling won’t make the world easier to understand, but it will make you better understand your place in it…whatever that means to you today.
Here are a few storytelling prompts for you to ask yourself (for reflection, for journaling, etc.) and others. You can use these in whatever way makes sense to you as an individual, friend, parent, community member, colleague, leader, etc.
- What is one thing that’s on my mind today? Why do I think that thing is choosing to stay in my mind? What does it want me to know about what is important to me? What does it want me to do? In writing my autobiography, what would I name the chapter on this thing?
- What are the different emotions present in my mind right now? What story does each emotion want to tell? What do these emotions want me to do right now? Why do I think they are sticking around?
- What are ways in which these things on my mind are affecting how I am operating in the world right now? How does that make me feel?
- What are ways in which these things on my mind are not affecting how I am operating in the world right now? How does that make me feel?
The prolific author, Tahir Shah, talks about stories as “the communal currency of humanity”, and I think we need to use this currency to process our experiences as humans right now. Yes, we need to do the work of change. Yes, we need to fight for a better world. But we cannot show up for that work and that fight if we haven’t made sense of it first.
Tell your story. Ask others to tell their stories and listen like it’s the most important thing you can do today…because it is the most important thing you can do today.