One of my book clubs is reading Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Café. I have seen the movie, several times, but never read the book before now. Not only is the author, Fannie Flagg a great story teller, the tale she tells introduces us to characters so alive I wish they lived down my street. At the same time, she addresses a number of timeless issues like equality, morality, kindness and forgiveness all wrapped around a story that feels hopeful and familiar to us all. Then this morning I listened to a podcast interview of a woman I consider to be one of the best story tellers alive—Rachel Naomi Remen. Not only is Remen convinced that stories hold the power to heal our individual lives, she believes they are also the key to healing the entire world. Could it be that authentic stories about love, loss, meaning, purpose and courage are what is missing in the world today?
Rachael Naomi Remen knows what she is talking about when it comes to healing. Not only is she a physician and a professor of medicine, she also spent years counseling those with cancer and other terminal illnesses. Using her unique background as a long-term survivor of her own chronic illness, she learned along the way that you can’t always cure an illness, or right a wrong—but finding healing is often just a story away. Remen says, “Hidden in all stories is the One story. The more we listen, the clearer that Story becomes. Our true identity, who we are, why we are here, what sustains us, is in this story.”
I think many of us in the world today would like to help create a more kind, loving and compassionate world today but we don’t know how. We have grown so accustomed to being, as Remen says, “…solitary; readers and watchers instead rather than sharers and participants.” We read books like Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Café and feel a heartfelt longing for those kinds of deep connections where we would risk everything to help a neighbor or a friend. We Tweet and write Facebook posts about the injustices that we see everywhere and yet never take the time to introduce ourselves to the person we’ve passed dozens of times on the sidewalk. Long gone are the stories we tell each other sitting around the kitchen table or fire.
I’m talking about me here of course. But isn’t that what any story is—an experience of one person who suspects that their story may also speak to another person’s experience? Fannie Flagg started by writing a story about some of the people she knew from her childhood, and about her experiences growing up in the south. Her story was so compelling it almost immediately became a success and made into a movie. Yet, she claims that in the beginning no publisher was even remotely interested in the book saying that it was just a “story” about an old lady in a nursing home. Those of us who have read it know that the book is much more than that—it speaks to the kindness of the human heart, the transcendence and acceptance of love where and when a person finds it, and the enormous capacity for courage and resilience some people have in the face of suffering. Hearing stories like that remind us of what we are capable of, instead of asking us to focus on the worst that is possible.
And that brings me back to Remen who explains how she believes that we can use our stories to heal ourselves and the world. And of course she does it by telling a story. That story is the Birthday of the World. In Remen’s own words as told to Krista Tippet of “On Being”…
This is the story of the birthday of the world. In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. Then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident. [laughs] And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness in the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people; to lift it up and make it visible once again and, thereby, to restore the innate wholeness of the world. This is a very important story for our times — that we heal the world one heart at a time. This task is called “tikkun olam” in Hebrew, “restoring the world.”
What if this is true? What if we don’t have to go out and transform the entire planet with our actions? What if all we have to do is find the “hidden light in all events and all people” and then do our best to share that light? I think a lot of us use the excuse that what can little-ole-me do in the face of so much suffering? A lot. We can listen. We can tell people and those we love stories of healing and wholeness. We can remind people that we, and they, are so much more than just human “doings” with a long list of accomplishments. I think it is important to continually tell each other that an authentic life filled with love, meaning, purpose and hope is far, far more rewarding than a long life of fear, suffering, hypocrisy, or insincerity.
Remen is convinced that the way to heal ourselves and the world is one story at a time, one person at a time. And that story doesn’t have to be grand, it just has to be the one we’ve been given to tell. She goes on to say that “…it’s our very wounds that enable us to make a difference. We are the right people, just as we are…. The fact is that life is full of losses and disappointments, and the art of living is to make of them something that can nourish others.”
I don’t know what your wounds are but if you, like me, have lived any length of time on this planet you have them. We all do. But most of the time we go around acting as though those wounds are an embarrassment that we need to hide. Then we go on to tell ourselves we are not good enough to help or heal others—let alone the world. Yet Remen says that stories are actually more important to us than food because they tell us who we are, what’s important to us, what is possible for us, and what we can call upon in the face of need. Remen also confirms that the story we decide to share with others about our losses and suffering determine the direction of the remainder of our life—we really do get to make it up.
Whenever we find someone willing to listen we each have the option of listing the “facts” or telling a deep story about our experiences. Sure the facts might be the “bones” of our lives, but let’s not forget it is the story that breathes aliveness into our world. In the end, what makes a story like Fried Green Tomatoes so wonderful isn’t the chronological details of the events, it is how alive and real Idgie and Ruth and the rest of them are as life unfolds with love, hope, loss, heartbreak and redemption. Perhaps the SMART approach is to be sure the stories we tell ourselves and others are as alive and rich. Then maybe, just maybe, we can help heal our little bit of the world right where we are.
Okay, your turn. Do you believe stories have the ability to heal us? Do you agree with Remen that define who we are and where we are headed? Have you ever considered that your wounds just might hold the seed of what you can best share with the world? What stories do you most remember that inspire you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.