“Got any good stories?”
This from a woman who looked like she was 60 years old or so — she was wearing a short flowy white skirt and a white visor that pushed her messy grey hair up into a poof on top of her head.
We were in the dog park. It’s the sort of place where people tend to strike up conversations with strangers who smile and nod at all the right moments, passing the time while their pooches romp and pee.
The day before, a man in a tattered brown leather jacket who had been sitting alone — slumped and unsmiling — on one of the park benches, cornered a group of 20-somethings and their dog. He was telling them how hard the pandemic had been on him as a teacher. “Trying to act all happy and enthusiastic to a bunch of blank boxes on Zoom really affected my mental health,” he said, twirling his nail-bitten finger in circles beside his ear. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”
It was pretty clear the group didn’t really care much about the man’s troubles — one woman kept pointing to the headphones strapped to her head. But an older man nearby, who was tossing a ball to a yappy chihuahua, leaned in every few minutes to offer his two cents on the man’s emotional health woes. I overheard him say that he had been a teacher as well, and that he couldn’t imagine having to do that job again now. About a half hour later, the man in the leather jacket strode out of the park with his head held a little higher, as if by sharing his worries, he had unloaded them somehow, leaving them to fester in the wood chips instead of in his head — or his heart.
It’s what’s so great about stories. They are these dynamic, living things that have so much power — healing and otherwise — both for the teller and those who are listening.
Stories are good for you. Every time you tell a story and someone listens and engages with you about that story, Dr. Lissa Rankin tells Psychology Today, you are slowing your body’s stress responses — toning down stress hormones like cortisol and boosting feel-good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine. And it gets better, she says, adding that all these great feels not only “turn on the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms,” but they also “relax your nervous system and help heal your mind of depression, anxiety, fear, anger, and feelings of disconnection.”
But even more than connection is the sense of oneness that stories cultivate. Sharing experiences can remind us that we are not all that different from one another, that we feel similar emotions, fear and hopes, and most importantly, that we are not alone.
Many years ago, I met a woman and her husband at a conference for people living with leukemia. We were on a lunch break after a session on nutrition. She introduced herself over the bagels.
“Katherine from Windsor,” she said, with an outstretched hand. “This is my husband Will,” gesturing to the man beside her who was wearing a plaid bow tie and leaning on a thin wooden cane.
She told the story of how she was diagnosed, how her children worried that she would die, how she was afraid to die, how mornings were the worst for her stomach because that’s when she took her medication and how it was her birthday. At some point, her eyes started to moisten and her voice wavered.
“It’s so hard sometimes,” she said, looking down.
At that moment, a hip-looking guy who had part of his head shaved and an earring in his nose, spoke up from behind us.
“I feel you,” he said to the woman, jumping into the conversation with a swath of tips on taming worry, the best teas for stomach upset and heartfelt birthday wishes. When I left them, the woman’s husband was balancing a notebook on the top of his cane as he tore off a piece of paper with his phone number on it so they could stay in touch.
There’s no question that there is a wonderfulness that comes with hearing someone else say that they get it, that they “feel” you. It creates a deliciously soothing sense of belonging that’s palatable, especially if you are dogged by feelings of isolation and loneliness.
There’s something else though.
When someone tells their story, they are choosing to take a chance — a risk, even. They are laying bare their experiences and emotions in a way that makes them uniquely vulnerable. And with this comes power.
We see it in Jessica Lamb’s account of what it’s like to face the stigma that comes with being a drug user and how her work as a harm reduction advocate is helping to change this and Tony Vassallo’s poignant telling of how his emotional struggle with weight that saw him hit 300 lbs also led to his current calling: helping men love their bodies. It’s this vulnerability that allows us as readers to not only make authentic connections with someone else’s truth, but also go deeper within ourselves to face the things we keep hidden away and join in the bid to make change where it matters most.
Stories, advocacy and connections — three things that, if done right, can come together to result in spectacular change.
We should do it more.
This story appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.