Why We Need Stories More Than Ever

Stories are powerful reminders that we will persevere.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

It has been a long time since I posted here. I am not sure where the time has gone as I have sheltered at home. In some ways, the days drag, and in others, they speed by. We all talk about the “before times” and the “new normal” as our worlds continue to evolve in new and unpredictable ways. And perhaps it is the unpredictability of it all that is most unnerving. We humans certainly need to connect to others, but we also need to feel some sense of control, some sense of predictability, some way to anticipate and plan, and we have not faced any of this before… at least not in our lifetime. That is where the power of stories becomes so important.

Since my last post (can it be three months already?), I have drawn on the power of stories in my work and in my personal life, stories to help colleges and universities to understand more about our students’ experiences in these tumultuous times, stories to help sustain community, and stories to build new communities.  

I have joined colleagues across multiple universities—Monisha Pasupathi and Cecilia Wainryb at the University of Utah, Kate McLean at Western Washington University, Andrea Follmer Greenhoot at the University of Kansas, and Jordan Booker at the University of Missouri—to study how college freshmen are coping with the pandemic and the disrupted trajectories to their lives. We collected stories from almost 700 college freshman about their experiences during the pandemic, along with a great deal of information about their life situation, their psychological well-being, and their identity development. 

We are in the process of examining how the stories these young people tell help them make sense out of some of this senselessness, and whether those who are able to tell more coherent, more growth-oriented stories are indeed coping better. We will be following these students, collecting more stories and measures over the next year, to explore what their lives look like in this “new normal” and how their individual situations and stories help us predict which students might be at the most risk, both mental health risks and also academic risks, so that we can design appropriate interventions. 

We are just at the beginning of this study, but reading these students stories and sorting through the structures and themes already tells us the ways in which these young lives are being impacted, both in positive ways—feeling closer to family, recommitting to altruistic goals—and negative ways—feelings of isolation and loneliness, of fear and anxiety. Collaborating on this study is helping me to understand my students better and, hopefully, will help others as well.

I have also joined with my colleagues at Emory University; our group, ETHOS (Emory Telling and Hearing our Stories, more on this in my next post), has developed a website for the Emory community to share our stories from the pandemic as a way to connect and re-connect with each other, to help us understand and empathize with our community, and to archive for future generations stories about the pandemic, stories that express our anxiety and apprehension, but also our resilience, our strength, and our perseverance as we learn more about ourselves and those we love through these stories. 

Which brings me to the way that stories have helped me personally through the pandemic. My husband and I have reconnected with some old friends and met some new friends through a weekly Zoom meeting. The meeting varies in topic and structure—some of the members of the group are amazing artists and have shared their paintings, pottery, and sculpture with us. We have enjoyed online house concerts and “visited” an artist’s studio. And we tell stories. Most recently, given that we are all baby boomers, we have started sharing stories about our parents, aunts and uncles, members of the greatest generation. Stories of unbelievable sacrifice and bravery, of bomber pilots, and prisoners of war, of comradeship amid hardship. And these stories bring us solace. If they could do it, we can do it. If they could survive and thrive, we can get through another day of sheltering at home.  

All these stories are different—freshmen struggling to make sense of disrupted lives, my Emory colleagues learning new things about themselves and their families, and my new Zoom friends sharing stories of past generations dealing with hardships we can barely imagine. Yet all the stories are powerful. Our stories help us make sense of our lives, give us hope that we will sustain and overcome, and help us predict a better future. I hope that you are sharing stories. Stories are powerful reminders that we will persevere.