During my 30-plus years as a pastoral psychotherapist, I listened to many stories. I learned to appreciate the fact that the life stories people shared with me were as important as the problem they brought for consultation, and that without the story, there was no context for understanding the problem and appreciating the full extent of its impact on a patient’s life.
Within the context of my psychotherapy practice, I had the honor of working with many people on a weekly basis over the course of many years. That depth and longevity of relationship are difficult to find in modern-day medical practice. And yet the depth and physicality of the existential crises that often accompany acute and chronic medical conditions, for patients and their families, provide an equally fertile ground for the sharing of story. Grounded in this firm belief, I offer the following reflections regarding the important role story-telling plays in modern health care.
While the degree to which a particular patient’s life story will play a central role in diagnosis and treatment varies greatly by situation, it will almost always play a key role in prognosis and recovery.
In listening to the life stories of our patients, we are constantly reminded that we are all more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life than we care to consciously ponder most of the time. Life is a journey during which holes
are unexpectedly torn in the fabric of our lives. When that occurs, we are stopped in our tracks. Whenever life tragedies occur, whether large or small, the self-narratives we have created over a lifetime, and which have guided and comforted us for years, are ripped apart. The plot lines must change, and the cast of characters surrounding us expands and contracts in ways we could never previously fathom.
On an individual level, it is through listening to a person’s life story that we gain a more complete perspective on who they are, their dreams and aspirations, the important attachment figures in their lives, and the particular values and strengths of character that will play a vital role in any recovery and change process that may be required. While the degree to which a particular patient’s life story will play a central role in diagnosis and treatment varies greatly by situation, it will almost always play a key role in prognosis and recovery. Within the areas of behavioral and mental health, the role story plays is always front and center.
The constant re-weaving process that repairs and keeps the fabric of our lives whole and functional year after year occurs most fully through the selective remembering and sharing of aspects of one’s story within relationship to another person. It is in this empathetically witnessed telling, remembering and re-telling of a life story that new awareness surfaces, change occurs, and the fabric of a life ripped asunder is re-woven into a new life-narrative that holds the potential for being life-renewing.
At a social level, it is through the telling and witnessing of story that we learn about the wider world around us. The patients we see are messengers – scouts, if you will – who live and travel in parts of the world with which we may be personally unfamiliar. It is through them that we gain knowledge of the wider human condition and the broader social/cultural fabric of human life. It is through respectful and compassionate listening to patient stories that health care providers are kept abreast of societal forces that wear down and damage the spirits of those we treat, and provides us with the qualitative research data we need to speak forcefully and prophetically to policymakers about what needs to change.
Lastly, if we listen with open hearts, the stories patients share with us keep us humble and connected to the common humanity we share. This connection, while leaving us more susceptible to suffering alongside of those we treat, is also rewarding, life-enriching and life-sustaining. In the hectic pace of everyday health care, those are precious commodities to treasure and enjoy.