Storytelling is steeped in tradition, which leads a lot of people to associate it with the distant past. But I’m always reminding people that stories can also be powerful tools in making sense of the present and helping us envision a better future. Stories empower us to see through barriers of fear. And the act of telling a story, or part of a story—or even listening to a story!—can help create a critical distance between ourselves and our problems.
Stories aren’t just finished pieces performed from a stage; they can scale down to help us in our day-to-day lives, opening up new ways to be honest with ourselves and one another in conversation. I was thinking about this recently in conversation with one of my colleagues, a professor at the local university who is a trauma-informed care specialist. Trauma-informed care is a holistic approach to health care that considers the full context of a person’s physical and mental ailments. The perspective of trauma-informed care has huge and obvious applications to our present moment, in which so many are dealing with the traumatic stress of the pandemic and now the political protests unfolding across the nation.
One of the things my colleague and I discussed was the link between storytelling, social work, and talk therapy. This led to a discussion of trauma-informed storytelling, which is when we apply the principles of storytelling to help people make sense of difficult situations. Many people right now are dealing with fear of the unknown. And by definition, a fear of the unknown can be difficult to talk about. How can storytelling help us navigate this challenge? At ISC, this is a question we explore in our work with at-risk youth, in our own community building, and in outreach to other communities, where we’re frequently helping people confront the traumas that they have experienced collectively, at home with their families, or personally as individuals.
Early in the pandemic, my colleague invited me to her (online) class as a guest speaker for a class of graduate students in social work. As master’s students, these folks are all working closely with clients—even now, during the pandemic. We decided to conduct the discussion as a series of prompts that the students might repurpose later, in their social work.
The first prompt I used with the class was an icebreaker. Trauma can feel very large and overwhelming, which makes it difficult for people to talk about; it may not seem like a story with a beginning and an end so much as a dark cloud or mental clutter. Experiences that elicit strong emotions can be hard to share. One way to make it easier is to provide people with a hook—a specific question that sparks the conversation. The first question I asked the class was to talk about what they have learned about themselves over the last two weeks. Perhaps they uncovered a new talent, or learned a new skill. One person talked about learning to use TikTok with their child. Another talked about picking up new cooking skills. These were small, positive, personal windows into what has been, collectively, a difficult experience.
This starting exercise, as simple as it was, embodied a key lesson: to start processing and telling a story about the past, you don’t necessarily need to create a long, detailed, or complete piece. You can just focus on creating a vignette or snapshot of the experience. Maybe it’ll become the seed for a longer story—but maybe not!
The second warm-up exercise was to tell the story of your name or nickname. My first name, Kiran, means “light from the sun” in Sanskrit. (I was born in the middle of a heat wave.) You can see how this easy, almost effortless, prompt creates an opportunity for people to share and connect.
Later in the conversation, I introduced a slightly more involved exercise to the class: recalling a moment or an event that led us to become the people who we are. In this case, my question was, “What led you to become a social worker?” The same question should work equally well for almost any profession or life choice: what led you to become a teacher, an ambulance driver, or a pharmacist? What led you to become a father? An artist? A student? As we move through this pandemic, questions like these help us remember who we are and what we value. They activate a sense of agency and power, reminding us of our lives and choices before this traumatic experience.
These little storytelling tricks of the trade can help us better understand ourselves and build new relationships with others. But they can also help us as professionals, especially in health care. For social workers, for example, this can help us find new ways to ask gently probing questions of new clients. Trauma is difficult to talk about. Social workers might try focusing on details surrounding the trauma to help the client open up and describe their experiences more clearly. Or it might be a matter of framing the question differently. Instead of asking someone to describe a crisis, you can ask them about how they coped, or what they learned, helping them claim a sense of ownership over a difficult story.
The episodes that make up our lives aren’t self-contained. They blend together and recombine in new and interesting ways as life carries on. Our old stories sometimes reveal new meanings, and our identities are informed by all our experiences, not just the good ones. Painful experiences help make us who we are, and when we accept them as part of the complete package, it becomes possible to reframe past difficulties in a new light. Your story is something that you are given the opportunity to recreate every day. My wish for everyone reading this is that our present difficulty helps guide our values in the future, and that tomorrow’s story is better than the one that came before.
One of the last things we talked about during the class visit was reframing the COVID-19 crisis as a launch pad for better things. Consider the metaphor of giving birth. People often refer to labor as “pain with a purpose”: it guides the mother as she brings new life into the world. The birthing process is difficult, but there’s no way to make it stop. Is there a way in which we can think of the mass trauma that people are going through now as “labor pains” for a better life and a better world?
In Mandarin, the word for crisis has two characters: one represents “danger,” and the other, loosely translated, is “opportunity.” Danger often comes with opportunities, even though they can be difficult to spot. Social distancing creates opportunities for new ways to interact with people who are far away. Grocery shopping less frequently gives us opportunities to be less wasteful and more inventive in our cooking. We’re all becoming more flexible, more creative, and more resilient—capacities that will help us long after the current crisis has passed. I think the act of imagining all the ways we can put those new tools to use is itself a powerful act of storytelling.
At ISC, we’re working hard to spot new opportunities in these unusual times. In fact, my guest appearance in this social work class sparked the conversations that inspired ISC’s new Stories as Medicine program, which we’ll be spotlighting here on the website in the weeks and months to come. You never know when small questions can lead to bigger, better things down the road. Every story starts somewhere. It is a small, radical act to imagine all the places that yours might go.
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ISC is building a better world through the power of storytelling.