The Power of the Narrative

It is the function of Art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.~ Anais Nin

While living internationally, we rarely went a day without having a story to tell that demonstrated our clumsy negotiations in a country where we were guests. Whether it was wrong translations on birth certificates, getting completely lost in a city of millions, or using the wrong word when communicating, there was always a story. At parties a game favorite was Two Truths and a Lie. While many in the United States may have played this, the responses are totally different when you live overseas. Responses such as “My maid of honor was a Nigerian gentleman”I had dinner with Yasser Arafat’s brother” “My appendix were taken out by a CIA operative” “I grew up with the Ambassador to Mongolia” and more are just a few of the interesting responses that are given. Contrast that to the first time I played this game in Massachusetts where the most exciting response was “I’ve been to Connecticut” (that was the lie…)

A few years ago my husband was talking to a friend from college years. This friend had come to the US from Iran for university and has since made his home here. He was relaying a story of his cousin coming to the US from Iran. She arrived in Michigan for a brief visit before moving on to Toronto. For three days, he said, they listened to her stories and laughed. At the end of three days, she turned to them and said “What are your stories? Tell me your stories?” My husband’s friend and his wife looked at her blankly. “We don’t have stories.” “How can you not have stories? Of course you have stories!” They explained to her that they really didn’t. Life was efficient and rarely brought surprises. They had no stories to tell. She was aghast.

How can you not have stories?

She left soon after and settled with her family in Toronto. A couple of years later another relative from Iran visited her in Toronto. For three days they listened to her stories. And then she turned to them, in the same way that they had turned to our friend and the same question was asked “Now tell me your stories!”. They were blank. They had no stories.

While I know that there are stories in this part of the world, I completely get the response of having no stories in comparison to our lives overseas. The best stories are ones that involve people. People are what make life infinitely interesting. In cultures that are more relationship oriented, there are more opportunities for interaction, whether positive or negative. When human interaction is limited by our high value of individualism and efficiency we can lose some of what makes a good story.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and we have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.

So bring on the stories – tell your story! Think about the life you’ve lived and what your story offers others.  I guarantee it will be worth the telling.

25 thoughts on “The Power of the Narrative

  1. I like this notion that out of difficulty of living comes great stories, whereas when life is easy, efficient, and predictable, no stories readily emerge. Reminds me of the saying, “In Greece, everything is possible, and everything is impossible.” Which reminds me of a story…

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  2. I am still taking a moment each day to read through your blog. They are stories to me. It made me recall recently a patient I met along with his wife. After I completed his chemo teaching, they wanted to tell me their stories, of how they met, of how many years together, of how they laugh, of how he though house bound was still able to surprise his wife on Valentine’s day…After quite a few stories, they asked if I could spare just a few more moments for one more story, and I did. Their relationship and love for each other, even in this battle against cancer left an impact on my life and I will never forget them nor their stories from that first meeting.

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    1. This is an amazing story in itself. I think a lot about this – the power, the history, the retelling….all of it is so important. And as nurses I find we’re magnets for stories if we allow ourselves to be. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. I am looking forward to the narratives you will no doubt be bringing back from your visit to Annie! And you are missing the shortest day of the year in New England!

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  4. I have thought a lot about this…. One of the things I’ve grieved in leaving Asia and settling here in Kansas is my loss of stories. Everyday there was a new story. We’d debrief at the end of the day and tell each other stories. I found myself living in those stories for the first several years here. It caused me pain that my stories didn’t communicate as well here as I thought they should. Recently I felt convicted that I need to cultivate a new collection of stories… stories from here. Stories from now.
    One of the things, it seems to me, that hinder our stories here is the obsessively paranoid perspective on confidentiality. This baffles me. Confidentiality may have it’s place but it impinges on community and a sense of connection with people.
    The other thing that seems to diminish our collection of stories here in North America is … for lack of a better word…busyness. Stories come from interfacing with people. If you have no time for people–to stop and see them, interact with them, connect with them– you’ll never build a repertoire of stories. I’m determined to see people, to hear their stories, to add theirs to mine, to make a new story in the moment.
    Scripture communicates so often so well because of the stories. The Christmas story burgeons with life because we can see Mary huge with child, we can hear the sheep protesting, smell the shepherd’s cigarettes, the prickles of the hay, the stench of the manure, the mess of it all forces its way into our souls. No one can resist a good story… especially a true one with redemption written all over it!

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    1. And they seem to intersect more as we travel back and forth! This comment made me laugh! Have you read the post “Childhood Friends is High Up Places”? I think you’d like it!

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  5. This is not Mom, it is Dad. My good friend Phil Cochran in Winchendon is a guy who always has a story to tell. He loves to tell stories, and I love to listen to him. Love, Dad

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  6. I love stories! Maybe people here in the states are reluctant to tell their stories because they spend so much time being entertained by professionals. But take heart my friend! You may have to look harder for the stories but they exist!

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    1. I love your last two sentences and you’re absolutely right. They do exist and I need to be aware and ready to hear them. And speaking of stories – would love to hear stories of Spain…

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  7. as for your part of the world Oh yes there are stories, stories of fortitude and courage, fighting illnesses and adversity. Stories of love and youth and romance. Of pain and pleasure and wonder. Of old age and loneliness. of good choices and bad. of honour and dishonour, of greed and arrogance and ignorance as well as extreme generosity and faith and wisdom. There are stories but perhaps the story tellers are not always sure that others consider their stories worth listening to, so they may be reticent.

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    1. When I do workshops on culture and health care one of the questions my colleague, Cathy, and I ask is “Does an individual have more of a cultural background if they are from another country and adhere more strongly to traditions?” or something to that affect…There are so many people that say “Yes” when the answer is no. No one has more or less culture. Your comment reminded me of this as I think when people begin to both listen to stories, and tell them, they begin to realize how many they have and how valuable they are. Great insight Pari.

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      1. I have many friends from the States Marilyn and I have always felt they had more stories than I did living in Kuwait, where one day more or less blended into another, and though the years you only notice the passage of time through the growth of your children or the grey hair that begin popping up, or the wrinkles that appear seemingly out of nowhere.

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  8. There is always a story. Each life has many short stories, a few plays, innumerable anecdotes and at least one full length novel.
    People always tell me their stories, even in the rest room. Maybe that is my big story. I have this face that invites confidences.
    Some I will not forget, one was so unexpected, there I was in the restroom of one of Kuwait’s malls marina mall and the attendant was a Sri Lankan lady and as I washed and dried my hands and brushed my hair, she told me about herself, how she was from a well to do family but had married a poor man of another religion against the wishes of her family and they had broken all relations with her, a man who had later deserted her and here she was forced by her circumstances to make her living cleaning out the toilets.
    When I was admitted to the fever hospital for malaria, there was a lady in the next bed who worked as a maid for a Kuwaiti lady. she had just returned from India like me and had also got malaria. She spoke Telegu and Arabic, my Arabic was not good and Telegu non existent but that did not hinder her telling of her life story. She had married the man she loved only to lose him three months later to snake bite. A young widow she then discovered she was pregnant. After delivering her son she had to leave her infant and come to Kuwait to earn a living. She began working for a Kuwait family but soon after the husband divorced his wife who also had a small baby. The two women became close and 11 years later she was still working for the same employer who took great care of her.
    One day I was going home in an auto, it was raining very heavily, I saw a woman standing in the rain fully drenched waiting for a bus, I wondered what was her story?
    rich or poor educated or illiterate, town bred or country bred each one of us has their story. All that is needed for them to come out is some compassion and interest.
    Why do we tell our stories? I think because we need witnesses to our lives or perhaps a desire to leave our mark that says we were here, came, we felt, we suffered, we enjoyed, we loved, we gave, we received, but most of all we lived and in all that we did and all those we met we left our mark.

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