Garrison Keiller performed at the Keene Colonial Theater this spring, to a packed and enthusiastic crowd. He sat alone on the stage, with nothing but a stool and bottled water. There he sang and spoke for 120 minutes. No television, no phones, no media, no conversation… just this man and his stories. People paid up to $100.00 for the experience.
I recently finished Hospice Volunteer Training in Brattleboro. The first few sessions involved sharing stories with a partner. Each person shared for ten minutes. They spoke while the partner listened– without interrupting, mentioning a similar experience, or judging. The listener offered their full presence, with appropriate body language—facing toward the storyteller, eyes alert and focused, sitting still and remaining quiet. Then, they would switch, and the listener had the chance to be heard.
What happens when you tell your story? What changes occur through the act of listening wholly?
It’s difficult to quantify the experience. How do our bodies change? Does heart rate relax, cortisol decrease, oxygen increase, and breathing expand? Do pleasure-regulating chemicals like Oxytocin or Dopamine rise in the brain? Does saliva normalize, becoming less acidic? Do T-cells and IgA levels change? How about glucose and adrenaline? Does the blood sugar stabilize? Do neurons fire more rapidly? Does blood flow increase and stimulate the memory areas of the brain? Research has demonstrated positive results with these and other physiological changes.
It’s also difficult to qualify the experience. How do our minds change? Do people feel better? Do moods alter? Does depression subside? Do our attention spans lengthen? Do we learn empathy? Do we strengthen our connection with another being? Are we inspired? Do we gain the motivation to persist? Do we choose life over death?
Again, research has been conducted, studying the effects of storytelling on both the teller and the listener. All of these factors have been documented.
Artist Karen Becker said that the only thing a human being needs is Recognition. It is the Meaning of Life, so to speak. So, does the story offer us recognition? Are we able to be seen—and in this way—become alive? As we hear someone’s story, we identify with some of their experience, realize our own stories are shared, and in this way, gain a communal recognition.
Indigenous cultures have known for thousands, religion for hundreds, and psychologists for dozens of years that storytelling is integral to the human experience. It’s how we transfer information, influence the tribe, and honor god. It’s how we make sense of our world around us, so we can live in it.
Today, Recognition is alive and thriving. We play “Show and Tell” through YouTube and MySpace. Social networking sites proliferate by offering the opportunity to be heard, even one sentence at a time. Facebook and Twitter ask us the simple question: What’s on your mind? And from that, an entire paradigm shifts.
The Art of Being Heard is powerful. As I sat with the audience, listening to Garrison Keiller weave his tales—offering simple and graphic details in a kind of PG-13-Rockwell painting come to life—I felt connected to him and everyone in the room. All of us giggled away as he poked and prodded at religion and regaled simple details like the majestic, steamy arch of a 12 year-old boy’s urination.
I wondered what it must have felt like to be heard in this way. To hold a room silent and still, as you open yourself up and reveal your truth. To captivate an audience of a thousand by telling others who you are. To be recognized by not only one, but by a thousand souls. How would my mind and body shift, in that situation?
Next time you are with a friend, try it. Bypass the shallower subjects like the weather. Avoid the typical gossip or complaints about money, job, and spouses. Ask them to share a story that holds personal meaning: a story of loss, triumph, or inspiration. A time they were smart… or stupid. Ask them about their hero. Ask them to reveal themselves to you.
Allow your dear ones the opportunity to be recognized. One story at a time.
Printed in the Pioneer Valley News, July Edition