Stories, like Swiss Army knives, perform many functions. They can inform or entertain. They can spark action. And, as Sebastian Junger reminds us in his Vanity Fair piece about PTSD, stories can heal.
What traumatizes our men and women returning from battle? Junger suggests it may not be just the things they have seen and done in the war. He cites the abrupt transition from the highly communal life of the military back to our relatively isolated American lifestyle as part of the problem.
Solutions through storytelling
We can mitigate this isolation. And we can do it without a huge shift in our lifestyle; we don’t all need to move to kibbutzim. But we can get some good ideas from how other cultures—with lower levels of PTSD—treat their warriors. Junger writes:
“…we could emulate many tribal societies—including the Apache—by getting rid of parades and replacing them with some form of homecoming ceremony. An almost universal component of these ceremonies is the dramatic retelling of combat experiences to the warrior’s community. We could achieve that on Veterans Day by making every town and city hall in the country available to veterans who want to speak publicly about the war. The vapid phrase ‘I support the troops’ would then mean actually showing up at your town hall every Veterans Day to hear these people out. Some vets will be angry, some will be proud, and some will be crying so hard they can’t speak. But a community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought.“
We’re happy to give Veterans their parades. But parading Vets only get seen, not heard. Some Veterans tell their stories in therapy, but therapy carries a stigma for many people. We need to ritualize the storytelling, nationalize it, publicize it. Make it the rule rather than the exception.
Being truly heard remains one of the most profound experiences a person can have. If we can give this gift to our veterans—and to each other—then, yes, stories can heal.
Storytelling for survival
In the divided U.S. revealed by this week’s election, storytelling becomes more important than ever.
Usually I advocate storytelling as a way to connect with people from different demographics, with different sets of experiences. But that only works when people are willing to hear you.
Since the presidential election—yes, just a few days ago!—the level of violence against women, Muslims, LGBT people and people of color has risen precipitously. As the hatred escalates, and as hate-filled words give way to actions, we have to tell—and amplify—those stories.
The new website Why We’re Afraid does this. It’s a one-stop shop to demonstrate that in electing Trump we also elevated and legitimized his bigotry. If you’ve been touched by the hate, share your story there. If you think your friends and neighbors are exaggerating the peril, spend a little time reading those stories.
So tell stories. Stories about the things you experience, the things your friends and family have experienced. Stories about your values—the values of kindness and compassion we once shared as a nation. Call out bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head. We cannot let this behavior become normalized.
And for more on that subject, check out this piece I wrote on LinkedIn yesterday, An Open Letter to Straight White Christian Male CEOs.