My grandmother was a tough woman. She could come off as cold, but those of us in her family knew she had a huge heart. We understood where she came from because we knew her story: she grew up during the Depression. Her father worked from dawn to dusk in the coal mines and her mother died young, before my grandmother went on to have six children of her own.
Her story was much like many women of her generation. Her grandparents came to America during the potato famine along with an estimated million other Irish Immigrants. You would have thought that she came off the boat herself though, the way she talked about Ireland. She sang us songs that her own mother had sung to her, and I’m quite certain that as she sang to us, she was singing to her own mother too.
I think that I decided to go to Ireland for a semester in college in an effort to get closer to my grandmother. I was in search of something, and now it seems clear that I was trying to understand my ancestors. To learn the history, to stand on the ground, to breathe the air they breathed… I longed to feel their ancient presence.
While I was in Ireland, I took a class on the oral history. This class was the first to teach me about the importance of telling your story. Even though I struggled with my professor’s Irish brogue, it was my favorite class
From traditional folklore to the poetry of W.B. Yeats, it’s storytelling rather than written records that informs us about what Irish culture was really like. Generation after generation, songs, verses, and prose have woven a beautiful tapestry to help the people understand their own Celtic traditions. It wasn’t illiteracy or lack of pen and paper that contributed to the storytelling tradition – it was a fear that if they wrote anything down it may get into the wrong persons hands.
In the face of poverty and fear, story was all they had.
In this class on the history of Ireland we learned how the Irish folklore passed on the history, but also the pain and resilience. From the Viking invasions to British rule, to the one million who died and the one million who emigrated during the famine, to civil war, the Irish have seen more than their fair share of grief, loss, and heartache. Even when I was twenty years old, it became clear what enabled the Irish to survive: they told their stories. They healed the pain through poetry, song, and folklore. Many of their stories are laments for a brutal past, but we also hear stories about resilience, strength, faith, and spirit.
The Science Behind the Power of Telling and Hearing Stories
In Ireland, I began paying attention. I began listening to others, really hearing their stories.
As an American student who’d had a relatively “easy” life to that point, it was eye opening to begin to understand “sometimes, story is all you have.” Sometimes, when you are experiencing pain and loss or grief, you need to take raw experience and put it into words that will be heard and remembered. Story allows you to be seen. Story is a way to invite another soul to join you in your pain. Story is how we grow, how we learn, and how we rise.
And there is all sorts of research to back this up too. Our brains need story. Evolutionarily, we are social beings who are wired for the cause and effect relationships that make a good story so compelling.
When we hear a story, not only are the language processing parts in our brains activated but also any area in the brain that would be used when experiencing the story. You feel the fear of being chased and the thrill of a passionate kiss. Both the storyteller and the audience are actually synchronizing their brains.This phenomenon allows us to have empathy and compassion, related to events we didn’t witness and even for characters you haven’t met.
And, when you tell the hard truths, the stories about failure and tragedy, you are changing your relationship with a story. You’re owning it so that it can’t own you, as so many untold secrets often do. When you dare to speak a tough story aloud, you are allowing your brain to integrate the story into your whole story, as Brene Brown says. This is an opportunity for growth and even healing. In this process, the brain actually experiences a dopamine boost because putting pieces together, connecting the dots, and making sense of something, even when it’s hard, it simply feels good.
Nations Need Stories and So Do Individuals
Ireland has many sad and painful stories to tell. Some of those are still being opened and told. As a country and as a people, shame, guilt, remorse, and resentment are all there in the mix. But, through it all, the Irish have used storytelling to learn more about themselves, to share and to connect to the generations before and after. They used story to rise up through that hurt and have gone on to become one of the most progressive, prosperous nations in Europe in many ways.
My grandmother is no longer with us, she passed almost a decade ago, and I can’t seem to remember too much about her now. But the songs, the stories of heartache and struggle, love and connection, they are now ingrained in me and they live on as part of my own story.
Wherever we live in the world and whatever our lineage, each of us has many stories, pains and truths to tell. Fortunately in today’s society we have professionals who are trained in story holding. They are trained to listen, help organize, and move you through sharing your story on your terms. When you and your story are held by compassionate therapist, you have a chance to review and reshape your stories so that you can find some peace in the ending you create for yourself.
If you have difficult personal stories that you know you need to release, I invite you to call me.
Call 304.433.7212 or email me today to schedule an appointment.