“I am story”.
In a very real and deep sense we are all of us wired into storytelling and story. It feels as if it is part of our DNA, wherever we are and whoever we are in the world we are surrounded by story.
Today marks the start of National Storytelling Week which before the pandemic had taken place in theatres, museums, schools, hospitals, and increasingly in care homes. In a virtual way the coming week will provide folks with a fantastic way to share their own story, or even invent something entirely new. National Storytelling Week is celebrated by all ages and celebrates the power of story to entertain and engage, to inform and include, to conjure mystery and to coracle sadness.
I have written before in these blogs about how I have always loved story and the tellers of tales which have inspired and encouraged me in my life. But at the start of a week where children will paint word pictures of adventure, where some will use words to express emotion and others will simply have fun, it is worth reflecting a bit on why story is important, perhaps especially in these pandemic times.
The best answer to that question, for me at least, comes in the work of Jonathan Gottschall, who in his book, “The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human” suggests that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories; that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. In the world of marketing and elevator pitches, of twitter and text – no story, no sale. Gotschall has said:
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
Stories provide a way of understanding our place in the world by giving structure to what is happening around us. That is the very nature of the big myths of humanity which from the dawning of time sought to explain the unexplainable and to give truth to chaos, safety to fear.
Stories root us in an on-going stream of history – they provide us with a sense of belonging and help establish our identities. Long before the written word there was the spoken word; the oral story constructs the text.
That is why every community, every people, every family has a heritage of stories which have become the truth for them and have helped to foster connection and meaning.
Gottschall argues that just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature – a face, a figure, a flower – and in sound, – so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognisable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning.
Everyone then has a story.
Life is one long story … it takes us the whole of that life to tell it to its conclusion … Some spend their lives waiting to tell their story… waiting for someone to listen …
It’s not that folks don’t tell tales or share parts of their self but there is a deeper story which is more than just the amalgamation of a set of anecdotes.
It is the story which was told before fire discovered the cave wall, or pen discovered ink, or teenager discovered text … it is the story of who we are, the individual behind the identity we show the world.
This is the story that we want someone to listen to … to really attend to with their whole interest and self … because we may only tell it once, it might only be in fragments, it might only be through the whisper of a silence … but it is the story we NEED to tell.
So if for a moment we accept that story is fundamental to what it means to be human – as many psychologists suggest – what does all this mean for care and in particular what about story and its telling in Covid times?
The week that has passed has tragically seen the reckoning of two statistics – 100,000 people in the UK and 6,000 people in Scotland have died as a result of Covid having tested positive within the last 28 days before their death. Deeply heart-breaking and horrendous.
One of the most tragic aspects of the pandemic is that for thousands upon thousands of individuals their story has been cut short, the next chapter of a life has been left unwritten, they have not had the chance to say goodbye or to finish what they started in their loving and living. But what strikes me as just as sad is that because of the policies of exclusion we have adopted for now eleven months for too many in hospital and care home there has been no-one they have known present to hear their last words, no-one other than a loving stranger to hold their hands in the midst of fear. They have not been able to tell the story of their life and love, of their truth and tear, of their regret and delight.
When I heard these statistics this last week I could not help but think of the hundreds, the thousands, who have died in our care homes, locked away from hands of touch and love, from the presence of family and friend, for these never-ending months of time. I could not help but think of the pain and anguish of family I have spoken to and know and of the anxiety and fear of staff and frontline carers. And we have to remember that during these months we are numbering not just those who have died from Covid for we have had hundreds dying during lockdown. No one wanted or wants this nightmare to be and to continue.
My great inspiration the poet Maya Angelou once said:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”.
Care is the incarnating of compassion and love so that it enables another person to flourish to their full humanity. Good care allows and frees an individual to tell their story, to be open and honest, vulnerable and authentic. Care is the listener and storyteller in equal measure. Covid has robbed countless thousands of the ability to tell their story, and of the presence of those who loved them to listen to its telling not just at the point of life’s ending but in the days and weeks before. We have been left with a harvest of hurt and harrowing regret which will take years, if ever, to overcome and which has and is traumatising so many today.
As we get vaccinations rolled out, and accurate testing, and PPE and proportionate infection control practices there simply must be a restoration of the presence of family into our care homes. I write that in full acknowledgment of the fear and anxiety, the terror and concern of those staff, managers and operators who have protected folks for so long that they are terrified of the virus infecting and destroying. In the days ahead as Government, providers, staff and families we all need to work together to ensure the restoration of safer visiting into care homes; we need to address the fear not ignore it; we need to remove the anxiety of staff and managers of liability, prosecution and culpability for any act whereby greater access may bring about harm. We need to recognise that life is about risk and relationship as much as it is about safety and protection. We need to work with those family members who are so anxious about visiting loved ones for fear of bringing hurt with them just as much as working with those who are desperate for the touch of love and to simply be with their relatives.
The pandemic has stolen the story of too many, it has corrupted the care we know which brings restoration and put up barriers which have blocked compassion. We have an opportunity to write a new story. We have the chance in coming days to do different and be better. We have within all our communities, by acting one with the other, not in criticism and condemnation, but in solidarity of shared concern, the capacity to write a conclusion worthy of our humanity to what has been a nightmare for too many. We have the power to write a new end.
When the story of this pandemic is finally written will there be space in its pages to tell of the lives of the thousands who are numbered and not named, will there be a space to allow us to grieve for lives unfinished and lost loves? This pandemic is not just about statistics and science, political action and policy positions. The future should not just be about immunology and vaccines, it has to be about shaping our humanity to the stories of the last eleven months.
Will there be a chapter which shows that when we could we changed and worked hard together to allow people despite the fear of the virus to be together, to better balance protection and presence, to allow people to have folks to listen to the stories of their last months, days and weeks in care home and hospital?
Story is a moment marker and memory holder. We have the power not just in Storytelling Week but in all our hours, months and years to write a story which pulls us forward to a better humanity.We have the power to release the stories untold and to enable a listener to be present. Let us therefore take up the pen and create it.