The Power of Story

By Craig Clemow, D.Min., Licensed Psychologist

“Storytellers, by the very act of telling, communicate a radical learning that changes lives and the world: telling stories is a universally accessible means through which people make meaning.” — Christopher Cavanaugh

My field of work takes place within ‘story.’ It is the humbling and sacred place shared by those who seek out my services when they are in pain, or confused, or overwhelmed. People come into my office and begin to unfold their story to me in bits and pieces – usually they start with the present events and share their most recent story. But over the course of our time together, they share the older, deeper, secret stories.

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

I am a psychologist. I am also an ordained clergyman. Both the psychological and spiritual traditions, different as they are, place importance on storytelling that inform and guide their understandings of the human condition, creating meaning. The telling of stories has a rich and long tradition.

The individuals, couples, families that reach out for help, do so not just from the point in time that they call, but bring the vastness of their journey into the room as they unfold their stories. These stories have a cast of characters, some good, some bad, some who where nurturing and some who caused great pain and torment. The chapters of the story have humor and joy, sadness and grief. Images of ‘bad, guilty shameful self’ get linked to images of ‘loving, powerful, vengeful gods.’ The truths of their story get merged within the myths of their stories.

“Their story, yours and mine – it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” — unknown

I have come to understand that it is in the listening to another’s story that I find it hard to judge or hold prejudice. That the need to agree or disagree loses meaning. When I meet the other – truly meet the story – then the teller is seen with different eyes, heard with different ears. I have forgotten what some have told me and what some have done, but I have never forgotten how I felt in the presence of the story.

In this world of ours that seems to have become so polarized with position taking – Right vs. Left, We vs. They, the Good ol’ days vs. Now, Haves vs. Have nots, my god vs. your god – what would happen if we could only speak about our stories? What would it be like if when one was speaking one’s story, the other could only listen? Is it possible that in that setting the need for shouting, violence, wars, fear and anxiety might lose its power? Might the voices raised in the hopes that their stories could be heard and understood get fair hearing? Would positions then come to be heard as concerns? Might the gap that existed between the positions shrink and concerns be seen as more vital to all?

Such a hope – such a need.

The Good Listener by Catriona Millar

The Good Listener by Catriona Millar

How do we translate this philosophy into our real everyday relationships? Those we love with, work with or meet? It is in our ability to speak our concerns to those we interact with that we train our listening for their concerns. We can ask them for their stories and show a genuine interest in what they are saying. Our children have stories, and embedded in their tales of the day lie hopes and fears. What we did at work has a story and holds our frustrations and self worth. When we ask for another’s story and they say, “nothing,” or “not much” as regards their day, maybe they have just learned that it is best that they don’t say: perhaps we have taught them we really are not interested. We continue to read the paper or keep an eye on the TV while they are talking.

What did it feel like when you knew that another really listened to you?

The Counseling Center in the Berkshires, where my colleagues and I work, believe that healing, nurturing and connection occur in that place where the telling of the story occurs. It is where our psychological selves and our spiritual selves meet.