Telling Our Stories: a Morning of Renewal

by Andre B. Heuer

On the morning of December 12, 2001, the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sponsored a morning of storytelling, renewal, and respite. The participants came from many organizations that serve refugees within the Twin Cities. They were men and women from many cultures and many places including Egypt, Somalia, South East Asia, Ethiopia, and Bosnia. As a storyteller and licensed clinical social worker, I served as the facilitator of this session that can, hopefully, serve as an example of the healing powers of storytelling.

Sharing The Stories

Several circles of six chairs fill the room, with a ball of multi-colored yarn and several pairs of scissors in each circle. The participants arrive and take their seats. The facilitator greets them and tells them that he hopes the day will be a time to share their stories, to reflect upon their work, to experience community, to be renewed, and to learn how to utilize storytelling in their work. He begins the session by instructing them to share a personal story of hope. It is to be a significant event in the person's life that motivates them in their work.

A person in the circle is selected to share his/her story. When the person finishes, he/she holds onto the end of the yarn and passes the ball of yarn to another person. As each tells their story, the ball of yarn is unwrapped and passed on. The participants relax and begin to smile as they share their stories. Soon the unrolled yarn becomes a colorful starshaped web between them.

When the individuals in the circles finish telling their stories, they share the themes of their stories with the other story circles in the room. Their ball of yarn is tossed to all the circles that share a similar story. There is laughter as the balls of yarn float uncontrollably across the room. Soon the variegated rainbow-colored yarn ties everyone in the room together. When the telling is finished, everyone in the room stands and as they pull and tug on the yarn, the room becomes a colorful kinetic sculpture of yarn. There are sounds of appreciation. When the session ends, participants cut a piece of the yarn to take with them as a reminder that their stories connect them with others.

Why Use Storytelling?

There is a story of a wise man who always rode his donkey backwards. When asked, "Why?" his answer was so that when he arrived to the place he was going he knew from where he came.

Story or narrative is an essential part of being human. We are storytelling animals. The stories we carry in our souls and hearts condition who we are and how we behave in the world. Our stories give us an ability to reflect upon our lives, to know where we have been, and to determine how we want to live. The sharing of a personal story enables individuals to recover and heal from the strains of life; thus, sharing works by supporting an individual in regaining a sense of self, in integrating experiences, and in acquiring a new perspective. The shaping and telling of story also enables individuals to take ownership of their experiences while helping them to create a healthy detachment.

An equally important aspect of storytelling is that our stories connect us to each other. The sharing of our personal, family, and traditional stories helps us to come to the heart of our experiences as a community, to discover our deeper human connections, and to illuminate the important values found within our community. When people gather together to share their stories in an atmosphere of openness and tolerance, a sense of trust, cohesiveness, and community develops. It gives persons an opportunity to receive empathy and support.

The primary hope for the participants was that they would feel renewed. As the session ended, participants shared their thoughts. One person said, "I was nervous at first but now I am feeling relaxed."

Another said, "Often people do not think they have a story to tell but we proved today that we all have stories."

And another participant said, "Thanks for giving us the chance to share ourselves with others."

And finally, "...communication, interaction, and good listening are methods for any human being to make life easy, bearable, and practical."

The power of storytelling is simply that it helps us to become more human and compassionate.