The Healing Power of Story

I love a good story! Probably one of the reasons is because when a story is told, it can be captivating. People who are good storytellers have a way of keeping their audiences in rapt attention for hours as they tell their stories through words, gestures, and voice intonations. It is as if the story has taken over the storyteller and, in turn, takes over the audience. Stories can be powerful in how they impact us.

We live our lives by the stories we both tell and hear. Most of the stories that guide us are the ones we tell to ourselves. These stories contain so much more than information, they also include how we have experienced life events and what we tell ourselves about them. They include our feelings about what happened and often leave us with an emotional response to both the telling and hearing of the story.

None of us make it through life without some sort of painful experience happening. As a result of sin’s impact on this world that we live in, it is not fully functioning in the way that God intended. As such, we find ourselves not only encountering joy and happiness in our lives, but pain and suffering as well. When we are hurt or wounded in ways large and small we are left trying to make sense of it all. In our pursuit to understand, we make meaning of what has happened to us and this meaning-making leads us to developing stories about how life works and our part in it. The way we tell our stories can add to the pain or help us toward healing.

When I Was a Child

In 1 Corinthians 13:11 we read, “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways” (Good News Translation). We often miss the power of this passage of scripture when we don’t see its connection to our need to develop more mature ways of thinking about life. For example, young children think “egocentrically” which basically means they incorrectly connect themselves with whatever happens around them. For example, children in this phase of development think everyone in the family wants ice cream because the child wants ice cream. It simply makes no sense to the child that others wouldn’t feel the same way. After all, I want ice cream!

Where childhood egocentricity becomes problematic is when children take responsibility for things that happen that are not their fault. In such cases children wonder what they did that caused the bad to happen. For example, young children often feel responsible if their parents divorce. Egocentricity is a phase of childhood that we must pass through if we are to live in healthier ways.

The challenge we face as adults is to put into application Paul’s admonition to let go of “childish ways” of thinking that have taken up residence in the stories we tell ourselves. We must realize that Paul is pointing out that getting older does not equate to becoming more mature in our thinking; maturity necessitates choice on our part regarding how we think. If we are still operating out of a developmental phase where we held ourselves responsible for pain we did not create, we will remember what happened but fail to be healed of its pain. We must recognize that the path to living out a healing story is through changing our way of speaking to ourselves about our past. What we need is a purposeful realization that we “have no more use for childish ways” of remembering what has wounded us.

The Stories of Our Hearts Guide Our Lives

Someone once said that we don’t live with the facts of our lives, we live with the stories we tell ourselves about these facts. This does not diminish the painful reality of what occurred in our lives at all for these events have left a number of us feeling as dazed and wounded. It does, however, give us hope that can free us from the pain that lingers on in our hearts as we find new ways of looking at the past.

Henri Nouwen captured this concept when he wrote, “Our pains and joys, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the ways we remember these events” (Living Reminder, p. 19). He continued, “It is no exaggeration to say that the suffering we most frequently encounter…is a suffering of memories… These memories wound because they are often deeply hidden in the center of our being and very hard to reach” (p. 21).

Our memories can act in a similar way. Whatever it was in our past that hurt, scared, embarrassed, victimized, or otherwise harmed us no longer is happening today except in our memories and the residual effects of these events. Our hearts are the container of all our stories—pleasant stories, painful stories, and everything in between.

As a professional counselor I’ve heard many people’s stories. As I listen intently to the facts of what occurred in my clients’ lives, I also listen for the stories that have developed into the story that they live by.

Healing Memories, Healing Stories

There are so many kinds, or genres, of stories. In my book Open My Heart, Heal My Soul: Living the Grace-Saturated Life I wrote about several of the more common ones. The truth is, we all enter adulthood with a heart full of life stories. Some of these stories need deep healing for us ever to reach the potential God has in mind for us. Many of our stories need at least a healthy adjustment since stories are not historic artifacts, they actively move us toward interpreting our present interactions. In other words, how we tell our stories to ourselves and others tends to create how we experience life today. For example, if our trust has been broken in the past and we don’t find healing, we will carry that pain and distrust into new relationships and potentially undermine them as a result.

The Difficult Work of Editing Our Stories

In his book Reaching for the Invisible God: What Can We Expect to Find?, Yancey wrote a line that stands out regarding the hard work of changing how we interpret life. “I live in daily awareness of how much easier it is to edit a book than edit a life” (p. 195). It is hard work that requires daily attention and energy if we are to find the courage to open up our hearts to attain healing in the depths of our souls. The tough work of editing old stories is well worth it, however, for only as we approach life from this new perspective will we experience living like never before.

Someone once said that “Writing is re-writing” and this is definitely true of our lives. Always remember that this is a journey toward healing and discovery of who we were created to be and God is helping us in the editing work. Donald Miller, author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, wrote, “I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.” Jesus as the “Author” (originator) and “Finisher” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) has such a desire to see his children live out the lives he has designed for them—a much better story than anyone else could have conceived.

About the Author
  David P. Mann, PhD, LPCC-S View David's profile