Teaching Resilience Through Storytelling

Storytelling is an ideal vehicle for teaching resilience skills and attitudes.

Posted Jan 20, 2011

Storytelling has been around since the first human beings sat down around a fire and talked about their lives. These first training sessions on resilience occurred thousands of years ago.  From campfires to fireplaces, potbelly stoves to water coolers, we continue to tell stories about resilience. 

In more recent times we've written these down in the form of novels and biographies, and more recently, recorded them on tape and film, and, most recently, posted on the Internet. Hearing the stories of others often enables one to identify with one or more of the characters in the story. Based on my experience with the Duct Tape Isn't Enough program, I believe that storytelling is an ideal vehicle for teaching resilience skills and attitudes, far better than lectures, textbooks, or brochures.

Research by psychologist James Pennybaker and others has found that writing about difficult things may actually improve our health. In a series of studies, one group of individuals was asked to write down their deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event they had experienced. Another group wrote about ordinary matters, such as their plans for the day. Both groups wrote for 15-20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. The results were surprising. When compared with the people who wrote about ordinary events, the ones who wrote about their traumatic experiences reported fewer symptoms, fewer visits to the doctor, fewer days off from work, improved mood, and a more positive outlook. Their immune function was enhanced for at least six weeks after writing.

These studies suggest that words can help us understand and absorb the traumatic event and eventually put it behind us. It can give us a sense of relief and control. Confiding our feelings in others can have a similar benefit.

One of the most difficult life events for most of us to talk about is death. It is a natural event, an experience all of us will share. And before our own death, we will encounter the death of others, especially those closest to us, such as a parent, spouse or, God forbid, a child.

Both living and dying require resilience. For the dying it may be staying alive long enough to say goodbye to the last child who's driving through a snowstorm to be at your bedside. For those caring for the person who is dying, being resilient requires, among other things, being able to wait and watch the person you love transition, and requiring you to change your routine every day as the situation demands. Staying flexible is the daily requirement.

Having just lost my mother during the Christmas holidays I am acutely aware of the resilience my mother demonstrated, not only throughout her life, but particularly in the weeks before her death. And I am acutely aware of the impact that her death will have on all of those who have been touched by her life.

In the next few weeks using storytelling, I will examine resilience from both sides, from the person who is dying and from those who are impacted by the person's death.

More Posts