As I prepared to send out copies of my memoir, SPLIT, A Child, A Priest, and the Catholic Church to reviewers, I decided to include a letter with each one. So last week I worked with a designer to create a letterhead.
When she asked if I wanted a tag line on the page, I blurted out: “Stories change the way we see things.” Now this was interesting, because we were discussing this one book, but clearly, what was on my mind was the power of all kinds of stories.
Later that week, I arrived in Tampa, Florida for the semi-annual SNAP leadership training. Taking the shuttle from the airport to the beach, I fell into conversation with the man sitting next to me. His name was Jeff and he was a filmmaker for National Geographic. His subject is sharks and other underwater creatures. Right now he is working on a nature series for children.
I asked him about his background, thinking that he must have grown up around animals. The truth was dramatically different from my expectation, and wow, did his story grab me. He contracted polio at age four and spent six years of his childhood in an iron lung.
Doctors told his family he would never walk again. He would never play with other children, or go to school. But he defied the odds against him. He decided to write a different story of his life. Through determination and grit, he learned to walk, he went to school and he even excelled in tennis. He now has five grown children, teaches at the University of Hawaii and swims with sharks.
I’ve never known much about polio. And what I had heard always left me believing that before the vaccine, everyone who contracted the disease either died or lived as an invalid for the rest of their lives. It was thrilling to hear one patient had such a wonderful outcome. And I appreciated hearing Jeff’s tale of the bravery and persistence it took to heal from this fearsome condition.
Giving Your Story
I am convinced that among the greatest gifts we can give one another is the gift of our story. We think we understand . . . until we hear the other side of things from someone who lived it. Stories often change everything. A story can lift us up, or it can bring us down, but at its best, a story can teach, inspire, expand and persuade us.
How many times have you read a story, or listened to a story and found yourself saying, “I didn’t know that,” or “What a wonderful experience,” or “How could that happen? Wasn’t anyone watching?” or “ That was wrong – just plain wrong. Something must be done about that.”
The Power of Story
Though storytelling has always held an important place in human culture, numerous studies now affirm the power of story as the greatest tool we have in accomplishing our personal, institutional and organizational goals. And when we combine facts and data with a compelling story, we can awaken the minds and hearts of people, often change the way they see things, the opinions they hold, and even move them from one position to another.
And we don’t just tell our stories to change others, we tell our stories because we must.
There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.
The Gift of Attention
There’s another great gift we can give each other. That’s the gift of our attention. When someone has a story to tell, they deserve to be listened to fully. That’s one of the most important parts of the work of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, listening to the stories of the abused. Our mission statement says in part:
Protect the vulnerable. Heal the wounded. Expose the truth.
All parts of that statement involve stories: the story that tells of the vulnerable in need of help, the story that reveals the wound, the story that exposes the truth. The members of SNAP keep telling our stories and encouraging others to share their stories because we know how effective stories are in bringing about the healing we all need.
Do you have a story inside you? Would you like a place to tell it? You can tell it here.
Knowing the power of story, and the value of sharing a story, I’m starting a new project. I’m opening MaryDispenza.com to the stories of other survivors. This time the stories will be not mine, but those of other survivors, others who have embarked upon a healing journey. And I hope in the future to create a story collection and extend the healing power of story to as many as possible.
I’ll act as editor, and provide guidance for those who have a story to tell. If you have such a story, please consider sharing it with the world. I would love to read it and consider it for this site, or for the anthology.
Keep an eye on this site for more information as the project develops.