Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the tag “storytelling and healing”

Conquering the Ugliness in Beauty

Social media is buzzing about how distorted images of women create unnatural, unattainable representations of ‘beauty.’ And this reminds me of an important, related issue.

A friend recently told me that as a kid, he hated reading certain stories because they were about characters he could never be like or look like. My friend has a disability. Whenever he read about beautiful people in books, he felt awful about himself.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

A mom I know struggles with teaching her kids about beauty, wishing for more stories that reflect her kids’ Asian heritage. And then there is my friend whose daughter has a rare, genetic syndrome. In addition to having a unique appearance, the child uses a wheelchair. There aren’t many beloved story characters who conquer kingdoms in assisted devices or who have asymmetrical body shapes. Finding stories that don’t marginalize such children can be more challenging than conquering storybook kingdoms.

My friends are not alone. Many parents wrestle with this. We comb bookshelves to find stories with illustrations that depict beauty in ways we feel are appropriate for our children. But many of those images are picture book perfect or culturally biased; they don’t reflect our reality. So images in books can become subliminal, insidious reminders of how we “should” look. Most of us fail.

Because pictures send a thousand messages, some parents carefully screen the images their kids see. They don’t want their children receiving messages that might cause them to undervalue their own unique beauty, heritage, or gifts. They don’t want their kids to feel like they don’t measure up. They don’t want to teach them to aspire to impossible ideals.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

Rigorous screening of media is one way to offer images of beauty to kids. But you can also do something else to give children stories and images that reflect them and which can build self-esteem.

Tell them stories.

When stories are told, words are chosen by the storyteller. Pictures are imagined by the storyteller and the listener(s). Thus, beauty is in the imagination of the beholder.

You can make up a story, adapt a traditional one, or retell one from a book. In so doing, you can define beauty in all the ways that make sense to you. A beautiful character can be from any culture, can have any disability, can mirror any child. Listeners can imagine themselves riding wheelchairs to glory.

Best of all, the potent images from a child’s imagination can stay with a child for life.

Beauty does not equate to blond hair, white skin, two straight arms, a certain weight range or a particular ability. Beauty is not just appearance alone. Beauty can be described in all the ways that humans perceive it. Most importantly, when you tell a story, your beautiful characters can have the beautiful traits that your child possesses.

Inspire children to find themselves beautiful. Inspire “typical” children to see beauty in those who have disabilities. Tell them stories.

The little girl I mentioned earlier, the one with the genetic syndrome, is one of the most beautiful children I have ever met. Not because she looks like everyone else, but because she looks like herself. Her heart popping smile is riveting, her glance has the power to light up the dark. I fall over myself when she smiles at me because her infectious, gorgeous glance kisses my heart. She radiates pure joy. What is more beautiful than that?

Every person deserves the chance to feel beautiful. Reclaim beauty for yourself and for the children around you. Beauty does not have to call up the beast of failed hopes; when stories are told personally, when beauty is described consciously, then stories become more beautiful. And that is when they can bring joy, possibility, and peace to parents and children.

Beauty does not have to be ugly.

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

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In an upcoming post – soon I hope – will outline ways to describe beauty in inclusive ways in the stories you tell. Follow for more on this and other stuff.

Heroism Through Stories

Have you heard about Antoinette Tuff? She is the bookkeeper who single handedly talked down a gunman in a Georgia school. Living up to the spirit of her name, she was alone with him for an hour. Yet calmly and compassionately, she talked to him, drew him out, made a personal connection to him and his life. Although Ms. Tuff claims that the credit for her success lies solely with God, there may be an additional, worldly contribution to her success as well.

“I just started telling him stories,” she said.

Storytellers have always claimed that the power of storytelling can be momentous. Therapists and others who use stories in healing work have seen it first hand. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and related self-help groups are predicated on the telling of stories to heal self and others. Antoinette Tuff told her own stories as a way to make a connection with the gunman, and in so doing, she probably saved many lives.

Honor this woman. Listen to her tell the story of this event. She is heroic in every sense of the word.

And tell your stories too – you never know, a story you tell may save a life.

Why is Storytelling Therapeutic?

One of our great privileges is to work with psychiatric patients on an inpatient, locked unit of a hospital. Clients are committed for a jumble of reasons – psychosis, depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, anxiety, aggression – and like a cook’s palette of herbs and spices, any and all of those issues can be mixed and matched, creating complex challenges for patients and clinicians alike.

So what do we do with such an eclectic group? We sit around a table, tell a few stories, and talk about them.

Recently, the activities director on the unit asked us for a brief, written summary that explains why storytelling is therapeutic. These are the words we shared with her.

Storytelling is a seed for growth and a balm for healing. Within every story are characters who mirror human struggle, strain with human emotion, and take human action. Because humanity in spoken stories touches the minds and hearts of listeners, live storytelling opens doorways to their inner worlds. During storytelling sessions on the unit, conversations with patients erupt about many things: emotions; difficulties; communication skills; problem-solving; coping, and; society’s perception about troubled souls, to name a few.

The sessions are effective because storytelling is done live. To accommodate the enormous variety of clinical issues, different tales are told each time. We vary telling style and story content in response to what we observe in listeners. Sometimes we stretch story moments or swap images; sometimes we tenderize the narrative or skip parts. Like word tailors, we adapt the text to measure, striving to make the best fit for the patients.

Best of all, stories contain healing images that can be taken home and remembered as beacons of light in life’s storms. To quote one middle-aged patient after hearing a story about a broken pot that was valued because it was broken: “I will never forget that story for the rest of my life.”

For these reasons and more, storytelling matters to those who hurt and hunger for inner peace.

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