The Power of Story

Among the many stories my ex-husband told me of his precarious childhood, there is one that sticks out. He was five or six years old, living in Florida and his mom was dating the Hat Man, a man who wove and sold palm frond hats to tourists by the side of the road.

One night after he went to bed, my ex-husband woke up and smelled smoke. He tried to get out of his bedroom but his mom had locked him in from the outside. Finally he escaped out of a window to discover that his mom and the Hat Man had fallen asleep while smoking and drinking too much and set the house on fire.

Now that I’m a parent, I often think of my ex-husband’s story even though we divorced years before I ever had kids. The story of the precocious and energetic young boy who was probably a little bit of a pain in the ass locked into a room so his mom could drink in peace and set the house on fire.

I think of it when I need more patience to coax cooperation instead of compel it. I think of the story when I need extra capacity to provide good care to little ones when I am needing care myself. I think of it when I’m digging deep to do my best when my kids seem to be bringing their worst. I think of the story when I’m grateful that my parents modeled kind and consistent care with me as I was growing up.

When we tell our stories, or when we as writers tell other people’s stories, we often can’t see the effect they have on those who read them. Our narratives have the power to inspire others and become fuel for good and bad decisions. When we do a good job of humanizing the trauma that comes with life, we pass on the comfort of being seen and open the source for healing. We can lay the ground for growth by telling the stories of when life wasn’t so good.

I thought of my ex-husband’s story again the other day when I heard a Ten Percent Happier podcast with therapist Dr. Jacob Ham. He was talking about relational trauma, the small moments of neglect, abuse and fear some children experience from a very early age.

Dr. Ham described this trauma, “What’s really screwed up is as a baby that the only way to deal with fear and terror is to run toward your caregivers. They are supposed to protect you. You scream out hoping that they’ll come to your rescue but if they are the ones hurting you, then it puts you in a terrifying loop where you want to run from them but at the same time your body tells you to go find them. And then you spend the rest of your days trying to figure out how to resolve that paradox.

“I have seen it [the paradox] be worked through. The key term that and I haven’t found a good layman’s term for is reawakening the capacity for mentalization. And mindfulness is a very close overlap to mentalization but the term means knowing that other person has a mind and that I have a mind and being curious about what’s happening in your mind as well as being curious about what’s happening in my mind.”

Which I interpret as that Dr. Ham works with his patients uses mindfulness to notice the deep stories in their minds and unpack their reactions that are fueled by them. In other words, the power of the story runs through this all – to tell where we’ve been, to inspire and inform others and to discover our internal paradoxes when we face ourselves.

No wonder being a writer is such a rich pursuit. Rich in power to change that is, because rich in monetary reward doesn’t necessarily follow. But it should – because it’s important work.

What are the most powerful stories you tell? Do you have a theme in your creative non-fiction or fiction? Is there a particular story that motivates you these days?

For more posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or follow me on Instagram @wynneleon

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(featured photo from Pexels)


40 thoughts on “The Power of Story

  1. “When we do a good job of humanizing the trauma that comes with life, we pass on the comfort of being seen and open the source for healing.” 🤩 I love this sentence as an answer to why we bother to tell stories or write at all.

  2. Dr. Jacob Ham’s analysis of early childhood relational trauma is intriguing. He’s right that situations like that create a paradox that young minds might not be able to process, only feel the injustice of it. I like the idea that as an adult you can write your own story about what happened, and perhaps feel empowered by it. And maybe even help other people by telling your story.

    1. Such a great point about feeling the injustice of it – that makes so much sense as to how it would feel. And then we fight the injustice instead of correcting the story. Yes!

  3. Another beauty of a post, Wynne. I know I’ve shared this before, but it’s what kept me focused on writing about my family trauma/drama with my mom: “One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.” – Brene Brown. Like Ally, I like Dr. Ham’s paradox perspective. True for domestic violence cycles and childhood traumas. Thank you so much for sharing this, Wynne. ❤

    1. And I know you telling your story of you mom will be many people’s survival guide. Beautiful quote – thanks for sharing that and bringing a full-circle perspective to this post. Love it, Vicki!

      1. You are very kind, Ana — but I just borrowed the quote above from Brene’ Brown! 😉 I’m glad you like it, too. Take care!

      2. I did give credit to Brene for the quote, and to you foraking it available to us. (I did put thanks in, didn’t I? Let me go check to make sure!) Please have a lovely day 🌹

  4. Beautiful post Wynne. I believe are story tellers by nature. I believe we all tell ourselves a story – it’s up to us to make a positive one – to find the meaning in the suffering we all experience. Thank you for sharing Wynne 🙏🙂

    1. Thanks, AP2. I love what you say about using stories to find the meaning in our suffering. Yes! Otherwise we have that sense of the cliffhanger and aren’t resolved. Great comment!

  5. Thank you, once again, Wynne, for sharing such a potent post. I’m still feeling the scene in my imagination of what he experienced, and it brings tears just to think of it. 🙏

    1. Thank you, Art. Yes, it’s a powerful image, isn’t it? Hopefully he works out the paradox set up by that because it’s tough for a kid to resolve. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      1. You’re welcome, Wynne. The image that it brought to mind was incredibly powerful, and the empathy for the child–almost overpowering. 🙏

  6. I am deep into this story telling and retelling and trying to figure out how I was shaped and have passed on my story to my kids. Your notes about Dr. Ham touch on much of what I am studying and my life makes so much sense…finally. My stories are going out to my kids who I hope will learn about themselves in the process.

    1. I love all the intentional work that you are doing to pass on your stories — and do your work to benefit your future generations. Dr. Ham was an incredibly insightful guest so if you listen to podcasts, I recommend it. He really made me think and gave me so many a-ha’s! Thanks for the great comment, Deb!

  7. I prefer stories that are honestly hopeful and dark where that same honesty is required. As you know, Wynne, your ex-husband story can be told many ways. Those are always the most interesting to me. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. You are so good at opening to a 360 degree view, Dr. Stein. I’m sure a key to much of your success and what makes your comments so insightful. Yes, the story can be told many ways and it does make it interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. The ability of a writer to share from the depths of the soul is truly a gift to others, particularly those who do not have the ability to share their own stories, but whose hearts are deeply touched by the who do. It takes courage to share one’s suffering, yet at the same time it is so healing, both for reader and writer. What a blessing for all. Thank you for another wonderful post, Wynne. 💕

    1. I love how you point out the relationship between reader and writer, Julia. Such an excellent point about authentic sharing working for both. And thank you for your kind words. You are a blessing!!

  9. How terrible for your ex-husband, Wynne. Sadly, I know there are many such stories like his. Which makes Dr. Ham’s work all the more necessary.
    And the podcast you mentioned sounds intriguing. I’m anxious to check it out!

    1. You are so right that there are too many stories like my ex-husbands and Dr. Ham’s work is so necessary. It’s a great podcast if you have time to listen. Thank you for reading and commenting, Kendra!

    1. What a lovely perspective that you offer here, Cheryl. You are right, having empathy for my ex has helped me a great deal. It certainly helps to know what paradoxes people come with, right? Thank you for your insightful comment!

  10. Right as rain Wynne, stories are a power and they impact the way people see life and they guide them when making decisions be it good or bad. I also agree that writing is rich because the words can tear up a person’s feelings or build them. In other words, stories are power and they influence our thinking behavior👏💯

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