|Grandfather Stone, Seneca Creation Tale|
Some years ago the conflicts in our nation and world had flamed into war at every level. I see now they were but a foretaste of the calamities taking place in our country at this writing. Then, in the last weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, I facilitated a workshop for trauma counselors who had come to Washington, D.C., from all parts of the country for a national conference. In the news that day was a fraudulent attack on one of the candidates that doomed any chance he might have to win, The nine participants in this workshop reflected the cultures and biases of their separate regions. They entered as hostile strangers, speaking emotionally incompatible languages, isolated within their own political ideologies, fears and prejudices.
One participant, a young man from New York, had come early to sit quietly by the sunny window and gaze out at the Washington Monument rising like a lonely mast from the Federal Mall across the street. The sun was dazzling and warmed the corner of the large conference room where I had set up a small circle of chairs. He confided to me that he was overwhelmed with the two traumatic realities affecting his clients (and himself): AIDS and 9/11. He had hoped to find some comfort by coming to the conference, but so far he had felt only increased isolation. He did not have much hope for this session, he said, but since the blurb had mentioned the healing power of story, and it was the last day, he had figured, what the hell.
The tension was palpable as, one by one, participants introduced themselves, their faces registering distrust, even distaste, as faith-based counselor from the South met gay psychotherapist from New York.
I introduced myself and gave an overview of healing story plot—crisis; the struggle to resolve it; and the transformation both in circumstances and the heart of the protagonist. The boredom of my listeners was obvious as they rifled through the handouts I had so lovingly prepared.
Bored, that is, until I uttered the password to the realm of magic:
“Once upon a time...” Doorway to the Path of Creation
I launched into a brief retelling of a verse toward the end of the Odyssey, when Odysseus is found naked and shipwrecked on a lonely beach at the end of an island belonging to an ancient seafaring people.
“Once upon a time there was a great warrior named Odysseus,” I began.
As it always did, this epic tale of a lost soul transfixed all of us.
I told them how after a 10-year war, the Greeks declared victory and set out for home. But Odysseus had steered his ship of returning warriors into alien waters and became lost. For 10 more years, they wandered. It wasn’t until he found himself shipwrecked on an island beach and told his story to his rescuers that his fortune changed and a new story began to take shape. So moved was the island king by the sufferings of this brave man that he ordered his sailors to place him on a ship and return him safely home to his kingdom of Ithaca.
The Odyssey is a timeless tale and is applicable to all our lives, even today, I said to the trauma therapists. Especially to our lives today, when so many of us feel adrift and traumatized, yearning for our own Ithaca.
The trauma therapists listened quietly as the narrative unfolded.
At the end, I asked my usual question: “What stands out for you?” There were a few questions about how this related to helping kids who had been sexually abused and how to separate one trauma from another in a person's life. I explained that story was not a clinical process aimed at treating symptoms. Rather, it regenerated the healing life force that no medically based treatment modality could reach. But the elephant in this room was the toxic distrust that permeated the group and the country.
Finally, the woman from the southern church murmured that she resonated with Odysseus’ long wanderings because she had lost her own daughter to cancer nine years before. Although she was a woman of faith who had attended many grief workshops and healing retreats, and even though she helped many others deal with their sorrows, she herself had remained frozen in the day her daughter died.
In 25 years of facilitating healing story workshops among every possible population, including groups that were in extreme conflict, I have seen what happens when I tell a mythic tale and people respond with their own stories, stepping out of their small, anguished realities into a larger one. I have found that most people are yearning to tell their stories, but they don’t know how. The old tales help to release their words and bind them together in a common story. I have learned how to identify the exact moment when this bonding happens: There is a palpable shift and softening in energy, a deepening quiet, a profound stillness: “I” becomes “We.” It happened here. The group became deeply quiet and attentive.
In the stillness, the man from New York spoke: He described the devastation that surrounded his life as a healer, gay man and New Yorker still struggling many years later to come to grips with the World Trade Center attacks. A few others joined in, sharing their own feelings of exhaustion from vicarious trauma, the caregiver’s occupational hazard.
After a brief writing period, I invited them to share what they had written with the group. The woman read about the moment of her daughter’s death. As she did so, she raised her eyebrows at the words: “A peace came over Lila's face, and I knew at that moment she was in the arms of a love greater than even I her mother could give her.”
“I had forgotten that moment,” she wept softly.
The young man read his piece describing his desolation without a future, surrounded by trauma, yet finding moments of peace in sunlight, water and the trees in Central Park. Held in the embrace of community, their myth-inspired writing released the healing insights so needed by their souls. The tensions in the group dissolved, as several others haltingly read their own writings.
I have no doubt that we are brought together to release life force in the world through the healing images and words we have within. From the Odyssey to grieving woman to frightened man to group, story generated a moment of wholeness and peace.
After a long, releasing cry, the woman said that something had broken and that now she could finally move forward.
No words from me were necessary; I let the silence surround them, each finding what they needed there.
After a while, I brought the group to a less vulnerable state in preparation for the rest of the day. “What do you take from this?” I asked. One by one, almost every person shared how much more relaxed they were, less stressed and feeling that they had truly connected with other people at a level they rarely got to experience, even in their families. Something real had happened. Nothing had actually changed; yet everything had. A larger story, beyond their personal lives, was being woven; life flowed again.
Trauma or loss may have tossed you out of the web of your life. Finding and sharing your deep story is the way back in.
You enter a larger field of human energy where you can find nourishment, light, restoration and resilience based not on hope but on the community engendered by the merging of our stories into one story: the longing to feel at home in the world and within ourselves. An image, character or situation in a story — be it contemporary, fairy tale or myth — makes a connection with someone that has never been made before or opens a blockage at a level of a listener's psyche that is inaccessible to their rational mind and ordinary language. Previously unimaginable transformations in mood, behavior and life flow from this opening that emerges between you and your listeners. Story reaches beneath the thinking, judging mind to the feeling one, where we are all human beings together standing on the common ground called life.
Whether in a prison, a homeless shelter, a hospital cancer unit or a first responder treatment center — crowded environments filled with trauma, stress, fear, depression and isolation — we the people relax. Our voices become stronger; strangers bond intimately; we laugh together; life force flows and profound healing occurs.
This knowledge is my rock. Story helps me remain stable and focused in my own life’s rocky places. It will help you, too.
It's true that storytellers create the world. We spin a world with our words and metaphors, plots and yearnings that ultimately manifest in physical reality. When one world story is created or dies, we spin a new one. It gives me some small comfort in this dark time when so much that we hold precious is being destroyed and reminds me that we must carry on, telling stories and bearing witness to life’s hard beauty as well as its continuation.
All rights reserved. Jun 3, 2019 Juliet Bruce, PhD. Excerpt from "A Write of Passage," and from a chapter published in the journal of the National Storytelling Network, January 2019.