How Personal Stories Can Heal the Collective Heart
Living in a Disconnected Time
I can’t think of another time in modern history that humans have been so lonely and disconnected. It’s ironic, of course, since we live in the most digitally connected time in history. What if there were an easy way to connect more deeply to one another? Could greater and more honest sharing of our emotions and stories begin to alleviate our loneliness?
The idea of sharing personal intimacies, pains, losses, and experiences lies in direct contrast to what we are taught in our culture. We are taught to keep our private lives private, to keep our pain a secret, to hide our true feelings. By the time we’re adults, we’re so accustomed to hiding our emotions that the very concept of seeing and honoring them as truth-tellers sounds like it would cause a revolution.
Maybe it could. But maybe we need a revolution: A story-sharing revolution.
A Spiritual Toolbox
I spent over a decade as a spiritual healer and teacher. By the time I officially left the spiritual world (meaning I didn’t work in that world anymore, though I remained connected to it), I had a toolbox filled with techniques, mantras, meditations, essential oils. I had everything I needed to keep myself in balance and harmony. With these tools, I hoped to go on and live my life as I’ve always wanted to: awake, clear, non judgmental, and like the adventure it was meant to be.
But the spiritual world was not where I learned about the importance of healing ourselves in order to heal the collective heart. I learned this piece through the process of writing my stories in the form of memoir.
When I first set out to write my book, I expected that it would be a self-help book. I felt ready to collect and share the lessons I’d learned in the spiritual world. But, in keeping with what I was taught about sharing personal things with the world, I wasn’t initially planning to share intimate, personal stories. I thought I’d stay “above it all,” and just share the lessons I’d learned.
Right away, I worked with a writing coach. She would read a draft of a chapter and inquire: “This is some nice wisdom here. But how did you gain that?”
I’d reply, “Well, here’s this story that happened…”. And she’d send me away to write that story.
I’d bring it to her, she’d read it and say, “Well, this story is good, but how did you come to be in such a place in your life to begin with?”
And then I’d write and share yet another story that had led up to that one.
This continued on and on, until we landed back at childhood. That was when we both knew that I would not be writing a self help book; I would be writing a memoir.
My first reaction to this realization was disappointment. I’d been a teacher of some kind for most of my life. My “teacher voice” was honed, practiced, natural. I wasn’t comfortable letting it go to develop my story-telling voice. Plus, I worried that a memoir would not make the same healing impact on the world as a good and true self-help book could.
As it turned out, I’ve been so wrong about so many things about this process.
A Wounded Heart
We are all walking around with our wounds, cuts, injuries, chips. Our wounds see every fresh experience as a replay of a past experience. They speak to us constantly, telling us (unconsciously) how we ought to respond to an in-moment situation. When we’re living from our unconscious wounds, we respond to current-day events with patterns and routines long-ago set up to protect us from not getting hurt in the same way again. Over time, these unconscious habits erect unconscious barriers in our lives.
It was during the writing of my stories that I realized that while I did have all these wonderful tools from the spiritual world, I had plenty of unconscious barriers up, too. These barriers had slowly made me suspicious, guarded, and defensive. I was less willing to be open, honest, and vulnerable—trademarks of my personality. By doing so, I had closed myself off to the possibility deeper and more fruitful relationships.
What had happened to my trust in people? Where had my faith in life gone? How had I lost the thrill of adventure?
Before my memoir could begin to do any healing work in the world, it turned out that it had a lot more work to do on me.
Our Stories, and our Bodies, tell the Truth
When I first started writing down stories from my life, it felt as if I were reliving them in real time.
I would be upstairs working on a story from the past for hours, recalling the feelings, trying to recall the dialogues, digging into my journals for more information.The very cells of my body remembered the stories with far more precision than my mind did. My body recreated the experiences for me so that I could write them down accurately. This was extremely helpful—especially when I would be writing a story that I wasn’t sure had merit or worth in the greater picture. Suddenly I would feel into my body, and I would trust that no matter how insignificant a particular experience might look from the outside, my body spoke the truth.
When I was done for the day, I felt like I had just been through the experience all over again. I would rejoin my family, but I wasn’t present with them. I was still back in time, lost in some childhood or early adult story.
There was a period of time during these early drafts where I thought—why am I doing this to myself? Nobody in their right mind would continue to relive traumatic experiences on purpose. I thought maybe I should quit. What good was it really doing, I thought, if it was only causing me more pain, not less?
An Emotional Workout
When our bodies respond to an event from the past as if it’s still happening now, this is an indication that more healing needs to happen around that experience. This was the message that I was getting with each and every story I wrote. Rather than a time to walk away, it was time to dig even deeper.
I continued the process of revising and rewriting my stories, each time getting deeper to the core issues and fears and human longings. Each round, there would be a little less reaction from my body, and more ability to let it go as I returned to family life. As more and more of my pain made its way from my body to the page, I soon began to realize that I could see my stories with greater clarity.
Until one day, when the stories lived entirely on the page and no longer in my body at all. It was as if they had never actually happened to me. They no longer seemed individual stories, they seemed collective. It was a strange feeling. Because every now and then I would have to go back to my journals, or ask my husband——This really happened, right? And the journals and my husband would confirm that it did.
It seems that once my stories and the emotional ties I had to them no longer lived in the cells of my body, they had no more power over me. Once their power was gone, they became translucent. I could see right through them.
A Higher Perspective
Once I was detached from my stories in this way, it was almost as if I could see myself from above, which was when I began to write many of my stories from my soul’s perspective, rather than my egos.
It was truly amazing to see what input my soul, my higher self, had about these stories that I had once found so unfair, so painful, or so difficult.
I saw how:
What is painful for the ego can be enlightening for the soul.
Uncertainty for the ego can feel freeing for the soul.
Comfort for the ego can feel lifeless for the soul.
Failure for the ego is a fresh, new beginning for the soul.
Not only did I have this fresh access to my soul’s perspective, I had access to all kinds of perspectives that I had never seen before. People who were peripheral to the story suddenly became central, and vice versa.
The lessons that I began to mine at this point, the wisdom that I gleaned, was at an entirely different depth than the ones that I had sat down initially to write when I thought I was going to write self-help.
From the Personal to the Collective
It was at this time that I started to share my memoir with potential readers. As we probably all do, I had thought my stories to be quite unique. So unique and individual, perhaps, that nobody could truly understand them. Not being understood was my greatest fear.
But as I received feedback, I learned that it was rarely the actual events of my life that won people’s attention, or that found them resonating with a story and connecting to me more deeply as a fellow human being. It was my emotions that did that heavy lifting. My emotions were the great truth-tellers of my stories. They were the communicators.
Once a reader and I made this emotional connection, it opened up our hearts for an even deeper conversation—a conversation and connection in which loneliness could not exist. Emotions are the shared language between human beings. Through telling the truth of our stories, we cultivate empathy and compassion for one another.
By not writing a self-help book and instead writing a memoir, I ended up writing something that has so much more potential for healing.
A Life worth Living
My life is no longer going to be one of walls and impenetrable barriers. It is going to be a porous life, a transparent life. And when I listen to other peoples’ stories, I’m going to ask for the emotions behind the story, too. How did it feel? Where does it live in your body? What does it still need to heal?
What if we had more emotional connection in our lives? If we found ways, not only through a memoir, to share our stories? Could this lead to a revolution? One that has nothing at all to do with the intellect and everything to do with the heart?
We all have our experiences. We’ve all made mistakes. Pain does not discriminate. But from the level of story, all of us humans can learn how to move into deeper and greater healing for ourselves and each other.
What a wonderful post. As a fellow memoirs I love to hear from other memoir writers who know the power of personal stories.
Thank you, Catherine. It’s too bad the memoir category isn’t more highly regarded, because hearing about other peoples’ stories is truly one of the best ways we grow! Maybe we can get it there!
This was very powerful to read. My spirituality is non-existent and has been for quiet a while. I have suffered a lot of, what I feel, are in justices and things that no person should have to experience. It is because of this that I have problems connecting with the grand design of it all. However, I do share my personal stories, so people know they are not alone.
Thank you. I am sorry for the difficulties and I hope life has a smoother path in mind for you. Please do continue to share your stories; they must have incredible value. Sending you healing energy.