Once upon a time…this may be one of the most magical phrases ever written. Young and old alike know that with these four little words they are about to be swept to another world…joy, sorrow, danger, who knows? I suggest that when someone says “Once upon a time” we settle into our seats and prepare for a journey.
A Simple History of Stories
The ability to create, appreciate and share stories are part of what makes us human. While no one has been able to say precisely when the first stories were told, historians suggest that storytelling was created as people started to form smaller and then larger clans/tribes. Storytellers shared events between members of the tribe as well as pass them on to other tribes. Until humans were able to write, storytelling was an oral tradition–relying on individuals’ ability to listen and remember. Storytellers were respected as keepers of a clan/tribe’s history.
Over time, writing was created. Depending on the era, stories were captured on stone, papyrus, parchment (dried animal skins), or forms of handmade paper. Various methods of ‘printing’ were completed starting with handwritten characters to using tools such as reeds and ink, or carved wood blocks and ink. Until the creation of the printing press (1440 -1450 CE), books were the property of the wealthy or religious orders. As printing became cheaper and easier, written ‘stories’ from a wide-range of sources became available to anyone who could read. If you’re interested in an in-depth history of printing, check out this site.
Today, stories are all around us…in print, digital and audio format. We tell our stories through music, art, literature, etc. Like in the past, stories continue to not only record events,but entertain us. Stories can also affect our mental health.
Our Personal Stories
Many studies have been completed showing the correlation between ‘negative’ stories (violent video games, movies, etc) and increased incidents of violence, aggression and desensitization to violence. On the positive side, this 2016 Huffpost (UK edition) article links watching comedies to improved mental health. Both of these ideas could be a blog post on their own. However, that’s not what I’m thinking about here. I’m thinking about the stories of our lives and those that we tell ourselves. While we can often choose what ‘outside’ stories we let influence us, our ‘internal’ stories are harder to avoid. In fact, we often don’t even know that we are telling them.
Once Upon a Time…
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a little boy who wanted to learn to knit. His mom was a knitter. So were his grandmother and aunts. He loved family gatherings when all his aunts would bring their needles and wool. After dinner, they would sit in the living room creating amazing things out of ‘sticks and string’. The colours were wonderful and he’s watched his grandmother make him mittens in his two favourite colours.
His dad, uncles and older brothers were not knitters. Instead, after dinner they would disappear to the den where they would watch sports, or to the garage where they would build stuff using wood and cement. Their materials were hard, not soft like wool.
As the little boy grew older, the men of the family started to invite him to join them in the den or garage. His mother encouraged him to go with them, and he was subtly discouraged from following the women into the living room. For his tenth birthday, the boy was given his own set of tools. As his family members watched him open his gift, he felt pressure to like the tools, but he found it difficult to fake his enthusiasm.
The years went by and the boy became a man. He remembered his desire to learn to knit, and would join the menfolk in the den or garage after dinner. When he saw his wife and mother knitting in the living room, he ‘knew’ that this was a female activity. If he told you this story (his story), he would tell you that there are things that men do and things that women do. It’s not manly for men to knit….so he won’t….no matter how much he wants to.
Our Stories in Therapy
We all have stories–it’s how we make sense of our lives. When we are getting to know someone we share our stories; increasing, over time, their level of depth and intimacy.
People often come into therapy because of the pain of their stories.
Sometimes the story is traumatic and hard to live with. They need help sorting through the details, finding meaning and finding a place for it in the perspective of their life. Sometimes people are hurting and don’t know why. Often they have been telling themselves stories that don’t serve them, and they are unaware that they are whispering them to themselves. In this case, the therapeutic work involves discovering these tales, testing if they are true and then deciding whether to keep or discard them…and write a new story.
Once Upon a Time…Continued…
One day the man realized that he wasn’t happy. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Something was missing. He decided to talk to someone and made an appointment with his friend’s therapist. At the first session, the therapist asked him what he liked to do. Did he have any hobbies? “Nope”, replied the man. “Well”, said the therapist, “if you could have any hobby, what would it be?”. The man thought, the expressions on his face moving from joy to despair. “What’s going on?” ask the therapist. The man told his story…and the process began…
And now…one of my favourite stories…Enjoy!