This past week I finished telling one story and then started another. I find that one of the joys of being a parent is the time I spend at the end of a day in reading to my daughter. Despite her advancing years we continue the ritual of me reading and her listening, and then she reads on her own or creates a story for herself. There is a lovely rhythm in sitting still and shutting out the world and resting into a book; a peace which comes from words and simply holding the space of imagination between yourself and the listener. I have never read or heard the same story twice without it saying something different to me.
I would not give up those times for the treasure of the world not least in that I am very aware of all those parents who yearn simply to be with their child who is no longer here or parents who ache for their world to be peaceful and safe enough to grant them the space to read and rest.
Being able to tell a story, being safe enough to listen are privileges we too easily forget.
National Storytelling Week starts today. It is a yearly event run by the Society for Storytelling that celebrates the tradition of storytelling and aims to inspire a whole new generation of storytellers.
I have reflected many times in this blog about the power of human story and today I want to briefly highlight the potential of storytelling and listening in the care and support relationship.
I start from the premise that a story does not belong alone to the teller. The power of the oral tradition is that the listener to a story is compelled to pass that story on, to write the next chapter of its transmission in the ears of the listener who makes it their own and who gives it new life. Stories are not possessions to be trapped and locked in our memory they are tales which to which we are charged to give flight and life so that they become meaning and truth for another. That means for some stories that it is the responsibility of the listener to act on what is heard. Not to grasp the story but to pass it on.
There are very few roles in life where we are privileged with hearing the stories of the lives, the experiences, and the memories of those older than ourselves, and those who are coming to the end of their lives. That is one of the very real privileges of social care and healthcare in care home and community. We are honoured to be the listeners of the moment, we are honoured to hear the personal narratives of individuals, we are listeners to truth and anecdote filled with insight and wonder.
I recently read an excellent research article by Prof Lucy Dipper about the power of storytelling in social care. Lucy Dipper is a clinical linguist, and her research has shown the extent to which storytelling can improve older adults’ communication skills and wellbeing. She and her team established a project called Storytelling for older Adults in Residential Settings (STARS), a unique, group intervention for older people to practice telling their personal stories. Its results were remarkable.
I am sure I am not the only person who has witnessed the breathtaking power which story has to enable a person to share their deepest fears and to unlock the pain that lies within them. I have seen and heard people open up and use the trust which deep listening offers to tell the story they have spoken to no other; to share the story that perhaps they are telling themselves for the first time.
Social carers are listeners and tellers of the heart of the human story – it is a story of the essence of humanity … What we need to do is to create the environments of time and space that enable people to tell their story, to pass on the stories of self, community and heritage which are so easily lost in the din and noise of contemporary living.
But as I have often been told the best stories including personal narratives are not tales of the improbable or unlikely, they are not imaginings of the mysterious, but rather they tell of the ordinariness of human community. And in that very ordinariness, in the mess and contradiction, in the fragility and brokenness, is the extraordinariness of humanity. Human community is created when we are all of is enabled to be truly honest and authentic, when our hurts and wholeness, our tears and laughter are able to be shared in equal measure, and who we are is validated for who we are.
The social carer knows the power of human storytelling to enable someone to be truly their authentic self, but they also know the power of a story which is shared, to re-shape and change the world around us.
It is in the community of storytellers and listeners that a different ending is created, and the potential of new direction and changed outcome is realised.
So this storytelling week I hope despite the challenges facing those who care and support others and those who receive that care and support that we can begin to tell a story of a world that is better than ours; of compassion and care resting in reality and rooted in time. I hope we can find energy in the stories of our lives to change the malaise and apathy which suggests things will never get better and that new direction cannot be found. I hope we do not just listen to but tell again the stories we are privileged to hear and start to act their truth out in our living and loving.
I’ve always loved the words of the folk singer Mike Jones who wrote a song inspired by the work of his friend, Taffy Thomas. I hope we can all become storytellers of social care truth.
I’m a teller of tales, a spinner of yarns,
A weaver of dreams and a liar.
I’ll teach you some stories to tell to your friends,
While sitting at home by the fire.
You may not believe everything that I say
But there’s one thing I’ll tell you that’s true
For my stories were given as presents to me
And now they are my gifts to you.
My stories are as old as the mountains and rivers
That flow through the land they were born in
They were told in the homes of peasants in rags
And kings with fine clothes adorning.
There’s no need for silver or gold in great store
For a tale becomes richer with telling
And as long as each listener has a pair of good ears
It matters not where they are dwelling.
A story well told can lift up your hearts
And help you forget all your sorrows
It can give you the strength and the courage to stand
And face all your troubles tomorrow.
For there’s wisdom and wit, beauty and charm
There’s laughter and sometimes there’s tears
But when the story is over and the spell it is broken
You’ll find that there’s nothing to fear
My stories were learned in my grandparent’s home
Where their grandparents also had heard them
They were given as payment by travelling folk
For a warm place to lay down their burdens
My stories are ageless, they never grow old
With each telling they are born anew
And when my story is ended, I’ll still be alive
In the tales that I’ve given to you.