The people who come to see us bring us their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly. We have to remember that what we hear is their story.
Robert Coles in “The Call of Stories”.
Stories have always fascinated me. I love them. Every day when I sit in my consulting room patients tell me the most amazing, fascinating and unique stories. As a medical student I was taught how to “take a history” – I hate that phrase actually – who’s doing the “taking” and what exactly are they “taking” and from whom? Doesn’t seem right to me at all. Instead I prefer teaching medical students how to listen to patients’ stories. However, the point is that this is the beginning of all diagnosis. To a certain extent listening to the patient’s story is a diminished art. There’s an over-reliance on technology and a lot of doctors just don’t seem to be able to make a diagnosis without a test these days. Diagnosis is a form of understanding. It’s a process of trying to make sense of somebody’s experience.
If stories are so important in clinical practice, then how can I learn to handle them better I wondered? There is a developing area of medicine known as “narrative-based practice”, with associated “narrative-based research” methodologies, but materially-orientated, reductionist scientists look down on narrative. They prefer data. So, when I started to study narrative (which, technically is the story AND the way that story is told), I couldn’t find much work from a scientific perspective. I had to turn to the humanities.
One of the books which I really love in this area of study is “On Stories” by Richard Kearney (ISBN 9-780415-247986). Not only is it a fabulous exploration of the place of story in human life, but it’s written completely beautifully. Richard Kearney is a philosopher but he’s also a magnificent writer. This one book taught me more about the importance of story than any other.
Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.
This sets stories at the heart of human existence – not optional, but essential.
Aristotle says in “Poetics” that storytelling is what gives us a shareable world.
The key word there is “shareable”. It’s through the use of story that we communicate our subjective experience and its through the sharing of subjective experience that we connect, and identify with others.
Without this transition from nature to narrative, from time suffered to time enacted and enunciated, it is debatable whether a merely biological life could ever be considered a truly human one.
Beautifully expressed. Sets narrative at the heart of what it means to be human and stands it against those who would take a materialistic view of life which they claim can be reduced to data sets and DNA.
Every life is in search of a narrative. We all seek, willy-nilly, to introduce some kind of concord into the everyday discord.
This is one of my favourite lines in the whole book. This is exactly the power of story – it enables us to “get a handle on” life, to bring some kind of order out of chaos.
What does Richard Kearney mean by story then? Well, I’ll finish this post with two more quotes from his book which make it very clear and very simple.
When someone asks you who you are, you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations.
This shows that story collapses time, bringing the past and the future into the present. Story telling requires memory, imagination and expression.
Every story requires -
a teller, a tale, something told about, and a recipient of the tale.
Nice and simple, but what profundity lies in there. For every story, there is a unique human being doing the telling, there is the story itself and its subject matter, and, very importantly there’s the recipient – the listener or the reader. Story is, as Aristotle said, a way of creating a shareable world. That’s the greatest potential of blogs, I reckon. By sharing our stories we create a shared world. Yes, sure, stories can divide as well as connect, but without stories, there is no potential for connection, no potential for compassion and no potential for the creation of a meaning-full, and better world.