Healing through Storytelling in Social Spaces


Who doesn’t remember those bedtime stories when the lights went down and the sun disappeared behind the night sky? Our worlds would then get illuminated with stories about mythical creatures, kings and their kingdoms, animals that built houses and about the old lady sewing magical garments in the sky.

Growing up, we’ve heard many such stories. Mythological tales to learn about beliefs, stories about war and peace to learn about the past, stories about our parent’s childhood and from grandma’s neighbourhood. And no matter how old we are, stories remain alluring to us. Hence, it’s safe to say that our love for stories is something that every human being on this planet has in common.

Why do we tell stories?

However, as we grew older, this inherent love for stories not only drives us to listen to them but also to tell these interesting tales. Anthropologists have established that storytelling is central to human existence. They affirm that it is a symbiotic exchange between the teller and the listener. We tell stories to make sense of the world around us. Humans love telling stories not because we are good orators but to share an episode with others that only we had the privilege to experience. Hence, storytelling makes us believe that our individual experiences matter in a larger social construct.

Even in the modern world, storytelling is still as relevant as it used to be. I am not spared from this yearning for stories either and my hunger for such a literary diet led me to many performing arts spaces that host rich cultural events. During many such excursions around the city, I have heard people narrate a piece of their lived experiences. Sometimes good, sometimes nostalgic but often sad and traumatic. Therefore, the first question that pops up is:

How do we turn our traumas and pain into stories and why do we do that?

Stories have a beginning, a middle and the end. They begin with a number of events kick-starting a particular narrative. Crucial turning points, overwhelming emotions and suffering emerge in the middle phase of the story and in cases of traumatic experiences, this is the phase when we are going through the trauma. The end is when everything, at last, settles down for the good or for bad. When a person can compartmentalize their suffering and grief in all these three phases, they began to see it as a story. That means a person sees something like a story only when they suffer and re-emerge from it (i.e. when they arrive at the last phase). If they are not already re-emerging then it’s still seen as an isolated incidence of suffering/trauma. Their journey of suffering and redemption not only helps them to carve out a story but also make sense of their suffering which leads us to our next question

Why do we derive meaning out of suffering through stories?

Unlike the popular belief, deriving meaning is not a philosophical concept, in fact, it is an evolutionary biological pattern. Existential psychologist, Irvin D. Yalom explains this in his 1989 classic, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, “Biologically, our nervous systems are organized in such a way that the brain automatically clusters incoming stimuli into configurations. Meaning provides a sense of mastery”.

No one can explain the importance of meaning better than Victor Frankl. In his book Man’s search for meaning, Frankl emphasizes, “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” According to this world-renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor knowing the ‘why’ for existence and suffering will help a man to bear almost anything. Frankl and Yalom were not the only ones to stress the importance of meaning in human life. Joseph Campbell, best known for his work in comparative religion and mythology, coined the term, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ the path that we take to learn about ourselves through suffering. Campbell emphasizes that it is through struggles that we realize our true purpose in life.

Making sense of suffering is not an irrational optimist view to thank the Lord for all the trauma but it is to know that even in our suffering lies something meaningful. It doesn’t have to involve looking at everything with rose-tinted glasses but instead to know that there is more to life beyond the pain. Deriving meaning helps us to process and heal the feeling of nothingness or unworthiness that gets engraved because of the traumatic experience.

When do we choose to share our stories in social spaces?

As discussed above, we tell stories to share our experiences and to tell stories we need to make sense of our experiences. However, we need to be able to look at our subjective experience from an objective point of view. That is to build a very individual perspective from a personal space but at the same time looking at everything from a bird’s eye view. This is possible when we know very clearly that the experience/trauma is ours but we are no longer that experience itself. Hence, we choose to share these experiences when we are in the process of healing. Social spaces play a huge part in this process. In her interview with The New Yorker, renowned couple’s therapist Esther Perel aptly explains this, “In terms of healing, what we do know is that pain is universal, but the meaning that we give to our pain, and the way we narrate our pain, is highly cultural and contextual. And there is nothing that helps us deal better with those experiences than our connections with others. Social connection is the No. 1 salve for most of the pain, and the hurt, and the trauma that we will experience. And communities that come together naturally will provide that kind of buffer.” 

The question that now remains is that why then do we choose to tell our most intimate and traumatic experiences to a bunch of strangers. Though there’s a lot of literature explaining the power of socializing with strangers there could be a subconscious reason for it. One such possibility is that the storyteller wants the listener to witness only the healing stage and wants someone to look at their victory and not the battle. Sometimes our loved ones get fixated to a particular stage of our story i.e. the beginning, middle or the end. However, on few occasions all we want to do is narrate only the meaning of our suffering. And that is when a bunch of storytellers gather around one evening in search of a spotlight that heals their pain and offers collective solace.

Stories heal us, unite us in solidarity and more than anything else it gives expression to our life experiences making us believe the wise words of Margaret Atwood,

‘In the end, we’ll all become stories.’

Komal Patil is a Blogger at One Future Collective.

Featured image source: The Writing Co-operative

Disclaimer: Views shared in this article are personal and may not represent that of the organisation’s.

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