[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] In the previous episode, I was talking about why human beings, collectively, as a species is so obsessed with story. And what I said was that story is what allows us to make sense of our world.
[00:00:23] Without it, we're lost. We are just lost. We need story to ground us, to help us to know where we fit, to help us to make sense of this world because life is confusing and chaotic. And story is the way in which we take that chaos and we put it in a form that gives it meaning and purpose and helps us to comprehend it so that we know how to live, so that we can hopefully make choices that are going to help maximize the full potential of our living experience.
[00:00:58] Because if we can't understand that falling into that pit of snakes was bad and it hurt and we want to avoid doing it next time, but we don't know how to do that because we don't have a tool to be able to do that, then we're going to keep falling into the pit of snakes. We're going to keep getting hurt. And nobody wants to live like that.
[00:01:18] So, story is what helps us to navigate this very chaotic and confusing world in which we live. It gives us meaning. It gives us order. It helps it make sense.
[00:01:32] I want to make a connection between that reality and trauma. Because if you've been watching this show for a while, you know that I'm a big believer that many of us are operating with subconscious programming that we're not even aware of because of unresolved childhood trauma.
[00:01:52] Now, not all of us, not all of us. However, if you're not one of those, and by the way, that would be wonderful. I hope that you're not because that's wonderful. But if you're not, then you know people who are. Because unfortunately, too many of us are walking wounded, right? And so, trauma is a very powerful force in the universe, and it's something that we're getting more and more in a lot of ways.
[00:02:16] And I guess I can't actually state this definitively, but you'd think that as we evolve and become more civilized that trauma would be less of an issue, but that's not necessarily the case. We're just kind of making up new kinds of trauma. It just keeps manifesting itself in different ways depending on the era in which we live.
[00:02:36] Okay, having said that, the point is I want to connect why storytelling impacts people that grew up in dysfunctional homes. Because the truth is that children that grow up in dysfunctional or abusive families will often construct elaborate defense systems called denial.
[00:02:56] In other words, they will create a construct of reality that they think is true. In fact, it is almost surreal how often universally adults who grew up in these types environments will look back on their own childhood and think on it with fondness. They will actually believe that they grew up in a happy home. In fact, there will even be almost this nostalgic view of it.
[00:03:21] But in reality, they've created it. It's a false narrative. It is an elaborate system of denial that they've built up. And when they reflect on their childhood, it's not a true perspective of what happened.
[00:03:34] Why? Well, this is because when you live in these types of families, the family unit itself is collectively denying the reality of the family's experience.
[00:03:48] Now, what do I mean by that? Well, I'm talking about the fact that, say you grew up in an alcoholic home. Nobody in that home is acknowledging the alcoholism. Or if they are, they're not acknowledging all of the other dysfunction that results because of that alcoholism. The abnormal becomes normal. It becomes a whole family system of being.
[00:04:11] And everybody then becomes responsible for covering it up. Or for pretending that it doesn't exist. Or for ignoring it because they don't want to cause problems.
[00:04:22] Whatever the case may be in that particular family, it becomes a family disease. That's why one of the principles of AA is that alcoholism is a family disease.
[00:04:33] Everybody is forced to participate in the lie. No one is allowed to talk about it honestly. Nobody is allowed to be open and direct about the elephant in the room. Nobody can do that. No one is allowed to confront the abuse, or even share their feelings honestly and safely without repercussion.
[00:04:58] It is chaotic. It is explosive. It is a hostile environment. The minute you try to share something honestly you are attacked. You are the problem. You become the problem when you try to bring up the thing that is the elephant in the room. If you were the one that tried to address it, you know that the whole family unit turned on you because they saw you as causing the problems because you're supposed to just, no, no, don't bring it up, don't bring it up. Everybody walks on eggshells and we'll keep the peace.
[00:05:27] So if you're like, Hey, let's talk about this. Now you become seen as the problem because you're the one trying to address the problems.
[00:05:34] So everyone in a dysfunctional or abusive home is supposed to pretend that everything is okay. The entire system is built on secrets and lies and silence and a suppression of the truth. And yet, the child knows on some fundamental level, on some instinctive level, that something is wrong. And so early on, almost invariably, a child will try to address what's wrong. Will try to fix it.
[00:06:07] We cannot help it. It is built into our human nature. But here's what happens. They know something is off, but since the whole rest of the family has been conditioned to deny this perception or to deny the reality of the family unit, the child will eventually capitulate. In other words, the child will eventually change his mind and come to see, Oh, I must be wrong. My perceptions must be wrong. Because since everybody else in the family isn't saying it or noticing it, and everybody else seems to be doing just fine, I guess... I must be the problem. It must be me.
[00:06:51] They internalize it. They turn it back on themselves and see themselves as being the wrong person, the wrong thing, the problem of the entire family.
[00:07:02] No one else seems to be acknowledging the reality of the dysfunctional system, so the child eventually adopts the family's truth over and against his own. And then believes that he or she is the problem, not whatever he thought it was.
[00:07:19] Now, there's an upside to this in a weird kind of way because in terms of trauma, what happens is in our brains that actually gives us a little bit of hope. Because see, if the problem is me and not this thing that I can't control, then there's still a chance I can fix it. I can change it.
[00:07:41] And so children who adopt that perception will try everything. These are the people pleasers. These are the kids that lose their identity in their parents and are just living to try to help the parents. They believe they can fix the parents if they can love their dad enough, if they can perform well enough. These are the high performers. These are the ones that become the stars of everything, that get the best grades because they think, well, if I can do that, then I'll fix it. Then I'll fix whatever is wrong, right?
[00:08:12] They're trying to fix it because they think that they have the power to do that. But they don't because it was never their problem to begin with. It was never theirs to fix.
[00:08:25] So, is it any wonder then that children as they grow up and become adults will acquire maladaptive techniques to living that no longer do good for them or no longer are helpful to them and in fact cause harm to themselves and sometimes others. That is all a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home.
[00:08:47] Steve Almond, an artist, says, "The story you tell is the life you lead."
[00:08:54] I had a therapist once tell me that we don't have behavior problems, we have belief problems. Because we always act in accordance to what we really believe is true. So, if we believe it's true that we are the problem and we believe that it's true that we can fix it, we will move in that direction.
[00:09:16] If on the other hand we believe that we're the problem, but we have no ability to fix it, we will start to destroy ourselves. We will develop addictions that are harmful to ourselves. We will take up smoking. We will take up drinking. We will take up sex. We will take up destructive behaviors. Because we don't have hope of changing it.
[00:09:40] Now both of them can be harmful to ourselves and to others. One is a faster way of destruction, but we always act in accordance with the truth as we believe it to be. We have belief problems, not behavior problems.
[00:09:56] So the child, in this case, is doing what human beings were designed to do. That's the point.
[00:10:01] The child is trying to make sense of his world. If his perceptions of the world don't match up to what he's been told is true, and is reality by his family, then he will change his perceptions to match the reality that he's been given.
[00:10:16] And by the way, one of the reasons why children do this, and why people do this in general, and why people that are in marriages, for example, with narcissists who distort the truth, and make us doubt our own perceptions of reality— the reason that we adopt the false truth is because intrinsically, on some level, we know that reality must be consistent. And we want to match our experience with reality.
[00:10:49] By the way, this is why if you look at people who have certain behaviors, for example, say a hoarder, whose world is chaotic on the outside. That is matching what's on the inside.
[00:11:02] It is a physical manifestation of their internal chaos. Their trauma. Their unresolved trauma. Hoarders are traumatized people, and they are just living it more observably than other people.
[00:11:19] I have a girlfriend who is a compulsive cleaner. Now, she cleans compulsively because of her own internal chaos.
[00:11:29] Really, that's a way for her to try to order her own world because she has unresolved trauma. Now, it doesn't always work, but the truth is, she knows that if she cleans, it calms something in her. The more triggered she is, the more compulsive she becomes about cleaning her house.
[00:11:49] Now again, the irony is that, in some ways, you might argue that that's better than someone who hoards, or who goes out and shops compulsively, or whatever the case may be. But the truth is, it's still a manifestation of this principle. Namely, we want our outsides to match our insides. But this is also why it is an action that can help in the efforts of recovering from our trauma.
[00:12:18] When we feel like we are spiraling emotionally, when we're having some sort of shame spiral, for example, and it's starting to feel chaotic and crazy. And maybe we're even triggered in some sort of PTSD. When we take positive action to create order in our outside world, it has a weird ability to do something to our inner world. And that's just a fact.
[00:12:44] And that is one reason why in programs of trauma recovery, one of the first orders of business is to try to give people agency. It's to try to give them actions that they can do to have power, to empower themselves instead of be powerless.
[00:13:02] See, we're powerless in our trauma. We're powerless in the effects of our trauma. We were powerless when we were traumatized. Especially if we have some sort of traumatic event that we can hang our hat on. Something happened to us that was truly traumatic. That was a powerless experience. We couldn't stop it. But now, in our recovery, the idea is to try to reinstitute some sort of power, some sort of agency that gives us a better ability to deal with it, and it reduces the anxiety.
[00:13:36] It reduces all of those feelings of chaos, and shame, and powerlessness. And that's essential, because those feelings tend to feed on themselves. The more shame we feel, the more shame we're going to manifest and cause. Shame feeds shame. So, having agency where we create order is going to create order. It always feeds upon itself.
[00:14:08] Again, the point is, is that intrinsically we know that reality must be consistent. And we want to match our internal reality with our outward reality. Contradictions cannot exist. And therefore, when we create order on the outside, it has the weird ability to manifest order on the inside and vice versa.
[00:14:31] If we're doing it in a healthy way. Otherwise, sometimes it's so out of control we could clean compulsively and think that that's creating order, but if it is so compulsive that we're out of control in the cleaning, then that doesn't do us any good either. Like people that wash their hands so much that their hands start to bleed. That's just as bad as going out and, I don't know, smoking pot or... That's just as bad, it's just as harmful to us as a human being, as doing some other sort of acting out technique.
[00:15:02] We know intuitively that whatever we say the truth is must consistently play out in every aspect of reality and therefore, what do we do? We use story to figure out the puzzle pieces of our lives. We use story to try to make sense of our world again
[00:15:24] And again, this is why if something terrible happened to us and somebody that was supposed to be a nurturing caretaker of us did that thing to us, we will tend to take the blame and think that we are the problem.
[00:15:38] Because that is easier, that is more palatable to believe that it was my fault than that this person completely exploited me and abused me. This person that was meant to love me did this to me. That is almost more unbearable than the idea that, Oh, it was my fault. I did this. I caused it. And that's why often we'll internalize it.
[00:16:01] Now, as someone who has experienced trauma firsthand, I know how trauma can impact our perceptions of truth. You see, what happens here is that trauma tends to negatively impact our perceptions of truth. Trauma can alter the way that we process information. It can alter our memories. It can make it more difficult for us to trust our own thoughts and feelings.
[00:16:28] Especially since we've been told in this dysfunctional family unit that our own thoughts and feelings are wrong, so we come to distrust our own thoughts and feelings in favor of the family unit, thinking that they must be right, and therefore we lose the ability to even know what we think or feel, or certainly to trust it. We don't trust ourselves. We second guess ourselves all the time.
[00:16:51] One common symptom of trauma is disassociation. I'm sure you've heard this term. Disassociation can cause us to feel, of course, disconnected, that's the point, from our thoughts and emotions and surroundings. But it can also make it challenging for us to accurately recall events and differentiate between reality and imagined scenarios.
[00:17:16] This is why, and I'm sure you've experienced this, have you ever had somebody say something, and it triggered you, it brought up emotions of the past, but you're reacting to the current situation way bigger than it should have been.
[00:17:31] You're reacting way bigger than it ever should have been. But it's because you're reacting to this over here. You're having difficulty differentiating between reality now and former events or imagined scenarios. You can't tell what's true, what's real, and what isn't.
[00:17:51] Trauma negatively impacts our ability to ascertain the truth.
[00:17:57] Additionally, trauma can cause us to develop a heightened sense of hypervigilance. It can make us more likely to perceive potential threats and danger in everyday situations. So that's the irony.
[00:18:11] On the one hand, we can be deadened to it, too. We can ignore signs of danger because we don't trust ourselves and our instincts.
[00:18:20] And so, notice these people that keep getting themselves in the same situation over and over again, and they're like... How did I get here? I know better. Well, these are people that don't trust themselves and so they keep repeating it. It's called trauma reenactment. Over and over and over again, they find themselves in these terrible situations.
[00:18:40] They're not bad people. They're not idiots. They are running a program that they're not even aware of. They don't know how they got there. And I know this because this was me.
[00:18:52] But in addition to that, sometimes it has the opposite effect. This can both be true. In some cases, you can perceive dangers that others are oblivious to, others who haven't had trauma happen to them. In some cases, we are more likely to receive those threats. Or to see something in an everyday situation.
[00:19:15] Are you one of those people who you can tell when somebody has a bad motive or there's something off about a person? There's something dangerous about them, and maybe nobody else around you can even perceive it, but you know. You know this is a predator at some level. It's because you have this ability.
[00:19:35] But either way, the problem is because sometimes we have this superpower and we're extra hypervigilantly aware, but sometimes we're oblivious to things that we should be aware of, either way, it distorts our sense of self. It distorts our ability to trust ourselves. And it distorts our sense of reality.
[00:19:58] It increases our tendency to jump to conclusions, or make assumptions based on limited information. We are not as reasonable as we ought to be. We go there before we've even thought about where we're going. We read into situations way too quickly. We're too reactive. We don't react like normal people. We don't take action. We're reactive. We jump to conclusions.
[00:20:25] So it's essential for us, if you are one of these people like myself, it's essential for us to understand the impact of trauma on our ability to perceive and process information. And it's also crucial, of course, to seek help and support from others in recovery and from mental health professionals, if you need to, anyone who can help us process our experiences and learn how to trust our own perceptions and beliefs again.
[00:20:53] This, to me, is one of the biggest parts of trauma recovery. It's learning to trust your own instincts again. It's learning that you actually do know things, and then taking positive action as a result of the things that you are feeling and thinking and knowing.
[00:21:13] Now, what does all of this have to do with story? You may be asking yourself. Well, let me tell you. Assuming that we're able to do this, what we find is that the artist, either with or without trauma really, is in possession of the most powerful weapon the universe has ever seen.
[00:21:37] Art and story are the most powerful weapons that the world has ever and will ever see. They are radically powerful. They have the power to radically transform lives. They have the power to bridge the gap, to strike through to the heart of something, to surpass the brain and go straight to the heart. They have the power to connect people in even the most unlikely of times throughout history.
[00:22:11] Art slash story is the most powerful thing in all of the universe. And as such, we ought to wield it responsibly.
[00:22:22] Let me give you some radical examples of times when art has completely changed something that it would just have been impossible for anything else to do. I mean, we're talking about things that are almost unbelievable. That have happened in reality all because of one kind of art or piece of art and then what it leads to.
[00:22:43] For example, are you familiar with the event known as the Christmas Truce of 1914? Well, as the story goes, it was Christmas Eve in 1914 during World War I. And soldiers from both sides of the Western Front were in trenches, and this is in Belgium, and they began to sing Christmas carols.
[00:23:07] Gradually, soldiers from each side began to venture out into no man's land. Imagine this. Visualize this in your head. They started exchanging gifts with each other. These are enemies! And it's Christmas Eve. But because songs started, because a work of art, because Christmas carols were started, they began to venture out into no man's land.
[00:23:32] They exchanged gifts. They even played a game of football with each other. The truce lasted for several days. And here's what's really amazing. It was contagious. This trench was long, long, long. The trenches on both sides were long, long, long. It was so contagious that in some places, in some areas on the front, it lasted all the way into the new year.
[00:23:58] Soldiers from both sides used this time to bury their dead, to exchange personal stories with each other, to engage in friendly combat such as snowball fights with each other, to have witty banter, to laugh and joke and sing and play.
[00:24:19] In the middle of World War I, they were just killing each other. They take this break, and sadly, they start fighting again.
[00:24:31] But the Christmas Truce of 1914 has become a symbol of hope and humanity amidst the brutality of war. It demonstrates how shared experiences and stories, the shared experiences of these soldiers, certainly on both sides, allow them to connect on a personal and deep level with their enemy, despite being on opposing armies.
[00:24:57] This event has been commemorated in a lot of works of art and literature, including the song, Christmas in the Trenches, by John McCutcheon, and the book, Silent Night, the story of the World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub.
[00:25:14] Now, if that is not an example of a time when art or music, a work of art, a type of art, united people of different cultures at an unlikely time, then I don't know what is.
[00:25:27] It is powerful. Art has the power to connect groups of people. But it also has the power to help individuals find a sense of belonging or purpose.
[00:25:38] So here's an example of how the power of storytelling has been used to bring about social change or to inspire action. And this is huge. All right, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
[00:25:52] Now, I don't know if you read the book, maybe you saw the movie. Maybe you haven't done either. I recommend that you do. It's, it's phenomenal. The movie is phenomenal and so is the book, but I love the movie.
[00:26:01] It had a significant impact on the public's perception of mental health institutions in America and it ended up contributing to the reform of mental health policies and practices.
[00:26:17] Now, the novel was released in 1962. The film adaptation, which was critically acclaimed, it won a number of Academy Awards. That was released in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson. And both stories portray the oppressive and dehumanizing conditions of the mental health institution.
[00:26:39] As its central character, Randall McMurphy, who's played by Jack Nicholson, challenges the authority of the system, which is made manifest by the cruel and manipulative nurse, Nurse Ratchet.
[00:26:52] So the book and the film sparked a public debate about the treatment of people with mental illness, and it's believed to play a role in the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to a closure of many large state mental hospitals. And it expanded community based mental health services, shed a light on these issues in a new way. We stopped doing surgeries like lobotomies to deal with psychiatric issues.
[00:27:24] By the way, this is important, because what's happening today? Well, apparently there's something that we're diagnosing as gender dysmorphia, which would be a psychiatric condition. But what's being prescribed? Surgery. Physical surgery. We haven't done that since lobotomies. There's something wrong here.
[00:27:46] There is something wrong when we are treating a psychiatric disease or issue with a physical surgery. It doesn't compute. It's wrong. It shouldn't be happening. But I'll let you debate that on your own.
[00:28:00] The point is, is that this story led to reforms across the board, including the training of psychiatric nurses and the changes in their role in mental health care.
[00:28:14] Overall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is considered a landmark work in the history of mental health advocacy, and it's contributed to important reforms in mental health policies and practices all across America, everywhere that this sort of thing goes on.
[00:28:32] So art and story are not only a means of connection, but they are tools for understanding ourselves and the world around us and for inspiring people to take action and create positive social change.
[00:28:47] I've given a lot of examples about this in previous episodes also when I talked about protest literature. That is specifically the kind of literature meant to create and to incite social change.
[00:28:59] But here's an example I didn't give that I think has merit. And that is something more recent, the Hunger Games.
[00:29:07] The Hunger Games is a popular young adult series written by Suzanne Collins and it's set in a dystopian future where children are forced to fight to death in an annual televised event, a spectacle known as the Hunger Games.
[00:29:25] Now this story has been praised for its commentary on social issues such as government control, class inequality, the power of the media. All these things, it's really tapping into some fundamental issues in our current society. And it has inspired many young readers, particularly younger readers, to become more politically engaged and to advocate for social change.
[00:29:51] Unfortunately, I haven't seen any changes in the use of social media. In fact, it's probably become more frequent. But what has also become more frequent are dissenters even among social media where we have podcasts like this.
[00:30:06] Podcasts, I think, are such a vitally important part of the landscape of social media because this is where we can find dissident voices. This is where we can argue now. This is what talk radio used to be, but only a few people had a voice. Now there's a lot of podcasts with a lot of different voices speaking the truth. And we get to find the people that we resonate with. It is a super important part of the conversation. And I hope that uh, podcasts won't ever be used against us or won't be shut down because I think it's vitally important that we have them now.
[00:30:45] These are just a few examples, but they illustrate how art and literature can inspire people they can inspire empathy and compassion They can help us to enact action and why because it helps us better understand the world around us and the experiences of others.
[00:31:03] At the end of the day, the artist is like the diagnostician of society. They're the ones diagnosing our diseases. They're the ones putting their thumb on the heartbeat of society and going, Oh yeah, here's something sick here. Oh, we're weak here. Oh, look, there's something wrong here. Pay attention to this. Fix this. Address this. They are putting their thumb on the heartbeat of society and showing us where we are sick.
[00:31:32] But sometimes, they, we, are putting our thumb on it and saying, Look at this. This is beautiful. Oh, look at this. Yes, look at this. This is praiseworthy. This is worth aspiring towards. This is worth fighting for. This is worth everything. This is what it's about.
[00:31:58] And this is why, as artists, we're also the moral purveyors of society. We are the ones telling culture what is good, what is right, what is noble, what is praiseworthy. What we should think about as a society, what we should strive to be like as people, as human beings, what are the good characteristics to manifest.
[00:32:21] I have one more quote for you here from Madeleine L'Engle that I just think is gorgeous, and I believe it speaks exactly to our calling as storytellers.
[00:32:33] She writes, "The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birth giver. In a very real sense, the artist, male or female, should be like Mary, who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command. Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays. But the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.' And the artist either says, "My soul doth magnify the Lord." And willingly becomes the bearer of the work or refuses."
[00:33:26] Which brings me to the very last point that I'd like to make today, which is that art in my mind is an act of worship. Producing art, creating art is an act of worship.
[00:33:40] In part because you're taking truth and you're manifesting it in beauty. Art is truth plus beauty. It is form plus content. It is both and. And therefore it is beautiful because you have both.
[00:33:58] You have both and it becomes an act of worship. And so I agree with Madeleine L'Engle. You either say, "My soul, death magnify the Lord," and willingly become a bearer of the work. Or you refuse. And that is why Maya Angelou is correct when she says, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you."
[00:34:30] Storytellers have a lot of power. And we want to make sure that we're wielding that power correctly. That we're not abusing it. This is why, of course, the first principle of storytelling is truth telling. We tell the truth about the human condition and about the world as it really, truly exists. The first duty of the artist is to tell the truth.
[00:34:51] But we put that truth in a beautiful form. And if we don't tell the truth about the world as God created it, or about human beings and all their glory and depravity, we're doing the same bad thing to that child that his dysfunctional family of origin did. We are skewing his perceptions of reality. We are distorting the truth and therefore we are causing harm to him and to others.
[00:35:17] That's how abusive cycles start, by the way. Including abuse in art. It starts through lies. It starts through obscuring the truth. We can tell beautiful lies. See, art is something where we can put it in a beautiful form and still have it be a lie. Which is why the very first principle is truth telling. We must tell the truth about the world as it really is, about our experiences as human beings, good and bad. We cannot distort or skew the truth.
[00:35:49] And then we take that truth and we put it in a beautiful form and present it to our audience. Why? For the purpose of human connection. So that they know that they are not alone. So that they know their purpose and place in this world. So that we all know and can make sense of the world as it is and as we know it to be.
[00:36:12] And so that we're inspired to bring out the best parts of humanity. And to manifest the best parts in ourselves. Art is powerful.
[00:36:24] And as John Ruskin says, "Art is not a study of positive reality. It is the seeking for ideal truth."
[00:36:34] May we go forth as truth tellers. May we go forth as storytellers and artists who are not looking for positive reality, but the ideal truth. The truth that surpasses all comprehension. And may we manifest that in the beauty that we've been allowed and called to create.
[00:36:58] If you are a storyteller, and you are looking to partner with somebody, you need help from a coach to tell the truth about the human condition, to manifest your story in truth, but also in a beautiful form, then may I encourage you to check out my services on the website. I would love to be of service. I would love to stand by you and walk through this process with you.
[00:37:24] You can go to the website www.thestorytellersmission.com/coaching and reach out for a free consultation and we'll take it from there.
[00:37:35] Alright, I want to thank you for joining me today on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.