Everyone loves a good story. Stories invite participation around the table, over a cup of coffee, or in the pages of a novel. But we don’t just enjoy stories, we need them. Scientists have marveled at how our brains crave, interact, and grow when we exchange these powerful touch points. They become more than experiences—they become frameworks, the very frameworks we need to understand the world we live in and the life we lead.
The Stories We Pass Down
“I was four years old when my father placed all our worldly goods into a covered wagon and we headed out from Minnesota to North Dakota.” This was my great grandmother’s story handed down to me through the women in my family. It resonated with my eleven-year-old self as we loaded everything we owned into a metal shipping container bound for Swaziland, Africa, the day my mother informed me we’d be moving to this tiny little kingdom floating in the space between Mozambique and South Africa.
All we knew about our future home were the two paragraphs we found in our red hardbound World Book Encyclopedia. The encyclopedia went into the container. I remember because I’d spent many quiet days reading them cover-to-cover in the lonely days that crept into every adventure. The stories of my parents’ childhood and the family on the other side of the ocean helped me place myself on the map of the hard working, adventurous women in my life who’d ventured into the unknown with little more than perseverance and prayer.
Researchers at Emory University have quantified this connection between family history and personal identity. According to Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush, The Intergenerational Self can be developed with good and bad stories alike. Common stories of place, value, and daily life can give children a stronger sense of control over their lives, higher self-esteem, and even better responses to difficult situations.
The Stories We Write
After experiencing debilitating grief in my early twenties, I began to write my reactions down, this time to find myself on the map of despair. Trauma forced me to pick up the pen and write. Documenting the extremes that threatened to suffocate me became a matter of survival, testimony to the sheer magnitude of emotions overwhelming my senses, creating excruciating vulnerability and calm all in the same breath.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk documents how writing in particular helps our brains come to terms with trauma and positively impacts our health as the brain integrates emotion and understanding. Journaling has been found to be a powerful tool in processing trauma. Sharing our personal narrative is powerful in a safe support-group setting or counseling as it engages the language portion of our brain while we access memory.
In the process of sculpting the words to fit our journey, our perspective is shaped. By placing the moment into a narrative, I witness my response. And as a person of faith, I discover anew the glory of God in personal ways. My words peeling back the layers of time, emotion, and spirit. The paragraphs bear witness to life in three dimensions. The chapters give my life understanding and substance.
The Stories We Read
In 2009, researchers concluded that the average American consumed over 100,000 words per day. Today, Google processes 40,000 search requests per second, and Nielsen reported that in 2016 Americans spent over ten hours per day inundated by consuming media. It seems fair to ask, don’t we come into contact with enough words without cracking the spine of a book?
According to social scientists, supplemental stories build our framework too. In fact, engaging in literary fiction actually increases our ability to empathize with others and develop long-term personal change in ourselves. Fiction readers, specifically, also have stronger social and support networks. Apparently engaging in narratives, basically crawling into a compelling story and viewing it from the inside, raises our ability to intuit complex emotions in the real world.
As a writer I’ve felt this. As my words move beyond me, I discover that humans often bring books deep into their souls long before they invite people there. An author’s untethered words can help others give voice and identify pain, passion, doubt, or fear across the spectrum of human emotion.
Our personal stories can often be lifelines to people in need, they can be counselors to those who can’t understand their lives, they can be the hand that steadies the shaking. Oftentimes we will never know the impact that our stories have on others. The people whose stories have impacted me the greatest may not even know it, but this is why we should share our stories. Embedded deep within our stories is the ability to transcend ourselves for a moment, to touch the soul of another and return to our own skin more complete, understood, human.
Cover image by Erik Eastman.
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