Story as Medicine

A couple of weeks ago I met with national book award recipient Colum McCann to discuss the medicinal qualities of stories. We began by piling up anxieties: political divisiveness, catastrophic climate change, wealth inequality, systemic racial violence. “We’ve become morally homeless,” Colum lamented. “Our lack of affection for others is at dangerous levels.” I shared his concern, but then remembered all the ways I have watched walls fall, prejudices dissipate, enemies grow in respect and understanding for one another. I thought of the recent workshop I led with participants from sixteen states and three countries. I remembered heads nodding among this diverse gathering as one participant confessed with emotion, “You all have given me hope for humanity.”

Story can save us. We step into the reality of another person’s existence and instead of judgement we feel a kinship. This happens in Hearth workshops and groups every time we meet. Someone gives testimony to their struggle and those gathered nod heads, “Yes. I feel you. I know what you mean. I’m no different than you.”

Story can save us because exchanging experiences is the most accessible, effective, democratic practice for fostering genuine, empathic connection. When I say “tell me your story?” what I’m really asking is can I re-live your experience with you? Can I try and see as you have seen, feel as you have felt, know the world as you have known it? Stories can save us because the honest listening and telling of personal experiences naturally endears us to one another. The illusion of separateness dissipates. I see myself in your story and am no longer able to demonize, ridicule, oppress or neglect. What’s so wonderful is that this is an instinctive, hardwired, human activity that anyone can engage to heal our families, our world, ourselves.

My work at The Hearth is to increase empathy and compassion in order to heal a troubled world. Despite the climate catastrophes, pandemic, increased political divisions–all is not lost. There is medicine for what ails us. It begins with cultivating trust. It begins with the listening and the telling.

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