Stories unite us and help us recognise our common humanity
Mental Health Awareness
Last week was Mental Health Awareness week. One of the memes used to promote it says “You are Not Alone.” During that week I suffered a bout of insomnia. I found myself awake at four o’clock in the morning, the summer sunlight starting to edge through the blinds and the birds beginning to chirrup outside. They were excitedly heralding in a new day as I lay there, anxious and irritated that I couldn’t get back to sleep. For a while I felt alone.
The Book of Joy
Then I remembered reading “The Book of Joy”, a conversation between two of my favourite humans; the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In that book they were asked how the deal with insomnia. Archbishop Tutu responded that he thought about other people who were also struggling to sleep and sent them love and compassion through his thoughts and prayers.
You are not alone
I tried. It didn’t quite work, but what did work was knowing that someone like him might be considering my suffering. Through time and space he was telling me that I was not alone. I used that as a mantra for a while, “You are not alone” I repeated to myself. It helped but wasn’t quite hitting the spot. There was a level further that I could go, something I had not yet grasped.
Because telling someone they are not alone feels a bit like a gift from one who has to one who has not, there is a sense of hierarchy in it, for me anyway. And that was not the intention of the Archbishop or of the Dalai Lama.
In fact, when asked about how he approaches so many people, how he manages his position in life the Dalai Lama says he thinks about how he is a human, just like the other seven billion humans. He talks about division and labelling, saying he could describe himself as Tibetan or Buddhist or monk but all of those things set him apart, make him different and he is not. He is one of us, a human, just like each one of us.
We are in this together
So there is a step further, one that brings the exalted down and raises the downtrodden up. It is the realisation that we are in this together. When sending out love and compassion Archbishop Tutu doesn’t do it because he is better or less vulnerable than others, he does it because he is vulnerable too and understands how that feels. He wants to soothe and comfort those in pain because he knows pain too. He is in this with us, as is the Dalai Lama.
We are all in this experience of being human together. We don’t know how we came to be, why we are here or where we are going. We may have beliefs about it but no certain knowledge. We do know that we are here now, with each other, sharing in the energy of the universe as well as being part of that energy. We are at once a drop in the ocean and the ocean itself.
Stories can remind us of this. Stories can take us from our everyday worries and concerns into a space where we remember that we are all humans together, there is nothing that really divides us, except the labels we choose to attach to ourselves, all of which can be released.
Stories are on this world, written in books, captured in movies, discovered through narrative games but they are not of this world. They recognise the existence of the imagination, of all the things that we cannot see, of the metaphysical world, of the flow of energy around, about and through us. They are the magical made real.
Storytellers are the ones that take us into that sacred space where we can release ourselves from the definitions we carry about who we are and recognise again that we are infinite, we are irreducible. Whatever we think we know about ourselves and our world can be redefined over and over again, through playful discovery, through curiosity, through childlike wonder.
I used to believe that storytellers lived outside of the normal groups of people. They were watchers, the ones who noticed, not the ones who did. As a writer and an actor it comforted me to be on the outside looking in. I could see what people needed. I could give them advice because I knew what they did not. I was wrong.
The storyteller people need as they take their hand to walk into that liminal space, the bridge between the physical world we see, touch and inhabit into the metaphysical space of energy, time and conceptual understanding, is the one who is in it with them.
Storytellers in the arena
Brené Brown talks about the one who enters the arena, the one who dares greatly, being the one who has the right to acknowledgement, not the one who stands outside and watches, however intently. In the arena of the story; whether the page or the stage, the storyteller who is living wholeheartedly, who is taking risks, who is willing to be bloodied and bruised in pursuit of what they believe in is the one we want to guide us into that world.
And as those storytellers we need a community. If we are to have the strength to keep entering that arena of vulnerability, challenge and heroism both for ourselves and for the benefit of others, we cannot walk alone.
Storytellers are brave but not fearless, bold but not foolhardy. They respect the power of the story to touch, transform and enlighten, they are its servants. And they are the servants of those who are lying alone in the dark wondering if they are all alone in the world. “No”, says the storyteller, “You are not alone. I am here too. Take my hand, we are in this together.”
Join us at the Storytellers’ Sanctuary and share your story with us.