Why stories are good for us

Frank Smith wrote the following:

“Stories are our way of making sense of the world. If we can’t make up a story about something we encounter or experience, we can’t make sense of it. Without a story, we have confusion and bewilderment. Even “facts” – whatever they might be- make no sense to us unless embedded in a story. Paris is the capital of France. That makes sense, if we know some stories about France. E=MC2 makes no sense to me. I have no idea what a C is, let alone a square one.

Stories are good for us, whether we hear them, read them write them, or simply imagine them. But stories that we read are particularly good for us. In fact I lbelieve they are essential. And that is because reading has a special relationship with people.”

When I studied counseling and became a psychotherapist, stories were paramount in therapeutic techniques. They have been supplanted by drugs. At the time, both drugs and behavioral therapies were preferred and stories were considered the sort of therapy that rich people had the time to engage in.

Since then our mental health problems have grown worse although many drugs are indeed helpful to severely distressed people. I wouldn’t take them away from them. But at some point, most people have to make some existential decisions about themselves and their lives. This is where stories come in.

All the great teachers have taught with stories. The Buddhists alone have supplied us with eons of stories, as have the Christian bible, the unbelievably rich store house of Jewish stories, Muslim haddiths and Sufi lore, and on and on (I’ve probably butchered a few spellings and religious references here…. my apologies).

Only recently in human history has the novel risen to popularity despite very early novelistic endeavors in ancient Japan and other isolated cases. Mostly, humans have heard their stories, not read them. Literacy was sparse and we depended on our story-tellers. Many of us have had the good fortune to encounter genuine authentic folk tale tellers. Remnants exist in the U.S. among certain communities. It is a rich experience and everyone should partake.

Why? Because we learn from stories. That is why they are used in therapy. We learn from a story in ways we do not from direct instruction. “Eat your spinach” garners resistance but “And Popeye popped a WHOLE can of spinach in his mouth, swallowed it, and his muscles popped up!” can set a little child to thinking…. hmmmm.

Stories sneak around the barriers we erect to protect ourselves. The teacher shaking a boney finger at us to warn us about our slothful ways elicits not much but defiance but an easy-going, friendly person who chats with us about sports can work in a story about himself or an athlete he once knew who got a scholarship based on good grades…… and that can set off a chain of thoughts admonitions and berating cannot set off.

To teach a language through telling stories? Kids would much rather listen to an exposition on the past tenses of French verbs than hear a story in French.

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