In Praise of Words and Storytelling

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me. 

If there was an award for most fallacious clichés, then this one would be making its way to the podium to accept the winning trophy. Words do have the power to hurt, and they are the most common weapon used when we are entrenched in anger; some spoken words remain with us for the rest of our lives. To hurt with words is common, it’s easy, everyone has done it, intentionally or not.

The real incredibleness in words lies in their ability to heal.

My fascination with words, both oral and written, has been present since I was a kid, but I’m currently going through an inspirational phase with oral storytelling. I attended a storytelling contest last week and I’m still taking in how amazing the experience was. Ten people took the stage to share their true stories on the topic of crime and punishment – some were funny, others  heavy, but they all produced authentic sharing. Some of the more difficult stories came with faltering voices and tears, a process in healing. When you listen to these stories, when you aren’t engaging in a conversation and thinking of what you’re going to say next, but simply present to hear, it not only does wonders for the storyteller, but it does something for the listener as well. It forces  you to show up for the storyteller, to take in the emotions that the words provoke, and to connect.

Storytelling has a rich history that started with images, it is a cover thrown over all languages and cultures. It is how we make sense of the world, how we relate, how we teach, entertain, and release what has gotten too heavy to carry. It is a path to healing.

Several years ago, Columbia University created a graduate program in narrative medicine. The program trains the health practitioner (whether a physician or a social worker) to absorb and interpret the story of their patients’ illness. It is a program that works under the premise that healing is improved when the illness is placed in the context of the patient’s story. It is necessary for the health practitioner to have the ability to be in tune with this story — to solicit the story, to listen, and to interpret. For the patient, the storytelling serves as an impetus to understand, share, and work through the illness. For the practitioner, it inspires an empathy and care that sometimes is missing in the healthcare industry.

So, yes, words can hurt, but let us stop underestimating the power that they have to heal.

Columbia University’s Inspiring Video on Narrative Medicine:

More info on Narrative Medicine and Healing:

Narrative Medicine: A Model for Empathy, Reflection, Profession, and Trust

Learning to Listen



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