Our stories are very powerful medicine. For thousands of years, indigenous people have recognized storytelling as a way to nourish both the body and the spirit by connecting us to earth, self and community.
With so many people expanding their notions of what healing means and seeking viable alternatives in their medical care, it is not surprising that contemporary medicine is finally embracing the concept of “narrative medicine” as a clinical discipline.
Columbia University now offers a Masters of Science in Narrative Medicine. Championed by Dr. Rita Charon, author of Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006), the program “. . . fortifies clinical practice with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness.” (http://www.narrativemedicine.org/)
But what do we really mean by narrative medicine? And, most importantly, how does this affect how we tell our own life stories?
First, let’s explore the difference between narrative healing as practiced by native peoples and alternative practitioners, and narrative medicine as interpreted by the medical community.
In narrative healing, it is expected that the practitioner and the patient are thoroughly invested in and believe in the process. In the telling of story, disharmonies are discovered and new ways of looking at illness or dis-ease are uncovered. From there, a fresh viewpoint and positive strategies for both spiritual and physical health can be developed. The focus is always on the individual, not the healer.
The work of Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., Ph.D, author of Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, draws upon Native American wisdom (http://www.healing-arts.org/mehl-madrona/). He describes the role of narrative this way: “In order for a person to get well, there has to be a story, one that everyone believes, that leads the individual back to health.”
In contrast to this, narrative medicine as defined by the medical community involves a somewhat different agenda. In this model, bibliotherapy is wedded to the medical experience. This involves doctors and caretakers actively writing about their experiences with their patients. The goal of these “pathographies” is to serve as an antidote to the detached concern (or even apathy) that one encounters in a clinical setting and to teach doctors to be more intuitive and empathetic. Ideally, doctors, clinicians and patients are brought together in a closer, more bonded relationship. All of these are positive intents; however, the traditional symptoms-based approach to health solutions remains unchanged.
Central to both viewpoints is the telling and the hearing of story and in finding recovery. This is the same thing that happens as a matter of course whenever we begin sharing our own histories. By telling our story, we are transformed. We naturally begin to see who we are and our relationship to the world in a different way.
This is important, not just in relation to the challenges and quality of the life we are living, but in how we embrace our whole life story, including our mortality. As Mehl-Madrona says:
At the end of life we all like to feel like we had meaning and purpose. It’s easier to die then. Much of what goes on around people who are dying is the preparation of story, to allow everyone to agree that the person’s life had meaning—with the funeral being the culmination. It’s so much more valuable to do that when people are alive.
. . .
Compassionate, empathetic listening is at the very heart of witnessing someone’s life story. When we truly open ourselves to another, a space is created where magical things can happen. Memories appear like beautiful butterflies. Conversations we have long forgotten become crystal clear streams opening into rivers of transformative thought.
When we are encouraged to speak freely, in an atmosphere of trust and non-judgment, our insights flow naturally. Visions and understandings surface that create connections and deep meaning that we may never have acknowledged or explored before. We face and sometimes, if we are fortunate or diligent enough, we release the past. All of these things make the present much more complete, not only for ourselves, but for all those who know and care for us.
In essence, healing begins to take place from the very moment we begin to tell our story. When our hearts connect, everything is possible. And therein lies the real medicine, the true gift of sharing our journeys with each other.
May all your stories be heard and be blessed,