Monday, September 20, 2021

Chapter 2: Healing Power of Stories

The Healing Power of Stories

To Journey with Story Listening:

Medical, Biblical, and Pastoral


Stories and metaphors/metonymy are pervasive. Recovery of both has been going on for some time in our culture as story telling comes back into vogue. As for metaphors/metonymy, they can be found in any discipline. (Sacks, 1979) I will share my experience with several disciplines, concentrating mainly on the medical, Biblical, and pastoral. All provide us with important root and orientation metaphors.     


1. Medical 

Dr. James Knight of the Turo Infirmary in New Orleans at a Chaplain's Convention in 1967 spoke on "A Psychoanalyst Looks at the Role of the Chaplain." He helped shape my early days as a chaplain with a traditional word. He said "don't go native. You are a missionary in the exotic land of medical science. .... Engage in the Spiritual quest by having an “unresolved identity." I am still on the journey with an unresolved identity. 

I went to one of Dr. Hans Selye’s workshops on stress where he told stories and played down the scientific method saying “That is the way you write up your findings” (Selye, notes). The scientific method doesn't make discoveries. Discoveries are made by asking the question no one else is asking. Then he told the story of watching four patients come into the amphitheater when he was a student. The professor came up with four different diagnoses. Selye had a question no one else was asking, "What was going on in the body that made them all look sick?" His professor’s response, "Selye, do you want to get through medical school? Don't ask questions like that?" His peers echoed the same. The question haunted Selye and ten years later in an unrelated research project he got his first clue. Stress affects five glands of the body (Selye, workshop).

The Stress Response Syndrome is called "non-specificity" since more than one stressor can set off the same response. I wonder if the same be true about Story Listening/Story Telling. Could they be a "non-specificity" since different stories can have a similar effect on the body. Humorous stories would certainly qualify 

I haven’t researched a Story Response Syndrome in the same way as the Stress Response Syndrome. But I have some indication there is a StRS. As Selye named two types of stress, distress and eustress, I know story/metaphor can go either direction, and the terms nacebo and placebo are used by some to connote this very happening (Davidson, p. 48-50). 

I met Sir Roger Bannister (the first person to break the 4 minute mile) at a dual conference of the International Society of the Autonomic Nervous System and the Shy Drager National Support Group. I found myself in a one-to-one meeting with Sir Roger, a noted neurologist in England. I asked my $64,000 dollar question. “Befrienders, our lay hospital visitors, find on occasion that listening to the patient's story causes a change in color around the eye, from dark to light. What is going on in the autonomic nervous system to bring about that change?” Without losing stride he replied, “The placebo effect.” Others then came up and interrupted. I was left not understanding his short answer. 

I found what Sir Roger was alluding to in an article by Dr. Davidson on nacebo/placebo a year later (Davidson, pages 48-50). There was a reference to the Lancet Medical Magazine. "The placebo effect in general practice is the power of the doctor alone to make the patient feel better, irrespective of medication" (Thomas, p. 1067). That relationship in England is defined as placebo.

Sir Roger, knowingly or unknowingly, was saying we are all on the front lines of the health care delivery system. I contend other health care providers, professional and non professional, participate in the same phenomenon, especially through story listening. The Befrienders and I know it happens. We know we contribute to a patient’s quality of life, even extending life in some cases beyond what was predicted by the doctor. 

The placebo is redefined by Dr. Herbert Benson as "remembered wellness" (Benson, p. 20-1). When people tell their story they can move from sad times to good times and in so doing they are engaged in self care from a health standpoint. 

The placebo effect yields beneficial clinical results in 60-90% of diseases that include angina pectoris, bronchial asthma, herpes simplex, and duodenal ulcer. Three components bring forth the placebo effect:

(a) positive beliefs and expectations on the part of the patient; (b) positive beliefs and expectations on the part of the physician or health care professional; and (c) a good relationship between the two parties.

Because of the heavily negative connotations of the very words "placebo effect," the term should be replaced by "remembered wellness." Remembered wellness has been one of medicines most potential assets and it should not be belittled or ridiculed. Unlike most other treatments, it is safe and inexpensive and has withstood the test of time. (Benson and Friedman, p. 193) 

I would include the peace experience of patients part of the "remembered wellness" effect and the same components can be manifest in the relationship any person has with another. Lay people, then, become new clinicians on the front lines of the pastoral/spiritual/health care delivery system facilitating this phenomenon since health care is out in the communities in a variety of settings. 

One of my stories with "remembered wellness" came shortly after I bought Dr. Benson's book onTimeless Healing. We had stopped in Las Vegas to visit my Aunt residing in a nursing home. At one of the meals I sat next to an elderly lady who after preliminary remarks began to tell me about the death of her husband. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She continued with different parts of her story. Then she began to tell me about the birth of her younger sister in the family home. It was in the middle of the night when she was awakened. When she reached the hallway an older sister chased her back into her room. She began to laugh. Her sadness was gone the remainder of the meal. I was a witness to what I had been reading about, "remembered wellness." The telling of her experiences gave witness to the placebo effect. 

Journal writing is a way of moving these insights to a similar benefit. The effect of journal writing by asthmatic and arthritic patients has been investigated (Smyth, Stone, Hurewitz, and Kaell, 1999; Spiegel, 1999). Preliminary research for these studies comes from the work of Dr. Pennebaker (Pennebaker, p. 3-18). His work and the work of others have direct implications for the point of view in these presentations and the Healing Power of Stories. His studies began with students writing about their trauma experiences and the subsequent reduction in visiting the campus medical clinic as compared with students who wrote about more superficial events who in turn appeared more frequently at the clinic. Many others in various ways since have studied this. A long article by Pennebaker about their work and conclusions appeared in the spring 2000 issue of Literature and Medicine. The significant line for us is, "While hard and fast conclusions are rare in our line of work, the evidence of dozens of studies over a decade of research strongly suggests that there are significant, positive, consistent, and identifiable relationships between writing and speaking about difficult or emotional experiences and physical health" (Pennebaker, p. 3-18). Out of this research has come a computerized word study of significant words and the words used to identify the transition (Pennebaker and Francis). 

Here is another source for documenting story listening. Chaplain Larry VanderCreek wrote a short article on "Tragic Events and the Benefits of 'Cognitive Processing" and 'Finding Meaning." " They researched story listening with the effect on certain T-cells of Aides patients. The implications were sufficient to suggest relevance for chaplains (VanderCreek, p. 15). I am saying the research suggests relevance for all of us. 

I have a few stories to illustrate an interdisciplinary approach. At a Faith/Medical Forum on "the Role of Metaphor in Illness," doctors and clergy had different stories. What they had in common were important metaphors for understanding. We were on common ground. A neurologist had the story of a patient with back pain. After numerous tests he could find no physiological cause. He asked her what is going on in your life. When she told him he understood her back pain from the emotional load she was carrying. 

The bibliography giving metaphor resources from different disciplines of knowledge disappeared by the end of the evening. Almost every field of knowledge I know of identifies metaphor at some point in their material. Most medical terms have been moved from one field to another (Vaisrub, 1977).

2. Biblical

Every weekday morning chaplains and Befrienders gathered in the chapel for a shortened form of Morning Prayer with four Scripture readings followed by an open discussion after each reading. Prayers were offered following the readings and discussion. 

The greater awareness of metaphors in 1975 changed our discussion a great deal. We began to identify Biblical metaphors plus matching them  with our every day experiences. We began our own maieutic education as match makers. I had already been in the habit of bringing the Hebrew and Greek interlinear so word study had been established. Different translation were used to see various interpretations. 

Early on we came across forms of parakaleo (a called one alongside) and we moved the word to the ministry of presence. Having updated some of my study of William Temple I know he stressed the Body of Christ in public as “9/10’s.” We are out in the community “9/10’s” while “1/10th” in worship and learning. Parakaleo is where service and ministry in the world take place. 

Parakaleo informs my role as a Chaplain as well as the story listening role of Befrienders. This word has many different forms in Greek, one of which is "paraclyte" which is the word for Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John's Gospel, "when the Advocate (paraclyte) comes, ... the Spirit of truth" (NRSV, John 15:26). 

We miss the frequent places this Greek word appears since it gets translated out in English different ways depending on the translation: comfort, console, encourage, exhort, beseech, invite, advocate, helper, entreat, pray. 

You know the familiar translation of the Beatitude, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:7). John Knox translates this, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall have a Befriender." I paraphrase this, "Blessed are those making major transitions in life for they shall have a 'called one alongside.'" St. Paul has to have loved this word. In his beatitude from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 he uses a form of parakaleo 10 times in 5 verses.

Blessed be The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. (2 Cor. 1:3-7, NRSV)

Now substitute "Befriender" for consolation. Next, substitute "called one alongside" for consolation. 

In the Letter to the Romans we have sumparakaleo meaning “mutually encouraged” (Romans 1:11, RSV) or “together we are alongside each other.” May these presentations and our e-mail discussion be the same for us as we continue to gather around our table in cyberspace. 

Our discoveries did not end with parakaleo. Then we found hineni. The word hineni is used five times in the call of Samuel. (1 Samuel 3:1-20) The word also appears frequently in the book of Genesis. 

Also, the discoveries do not stop. A web site reference helped give this concrete meaning (see Naomi Tannen gave a presentation to an all Counseling Service of Addison County staff meeting, "The Healing Potential of Responsiveness.” Her talk gives witness to the importance of hineni for her.

Since story listening was and is our mode these words in Hebrew and Greek are foundational. They provide a link with Scripture in our intentional direction.  

Scripture builds a case for listening as primary as “hear” begins the Jewish creed. I am also pursuing a study of the word akouo, listen/hear, which is used over 427 times in the New Testament. (page 111, Hedahl) I don’t know the number with shemei in the Old Testament for hear, listen, and obey but the number is considerable.

A Greek verb form of present active imperative provides the meaning of continuous in the present. This is the verb form used to describe the way Mary listens to Jesus in Luke 10: 39. She is "continuously listening." It was the better part. I say “listening continuously” is the better part in our pastoral role.

In Acts 10 we have Peter coming to a new realization that “God shows no partiality.” The new realization in Greek is a form of katalambano. I tracked the word lambano in the New Testament. The Gospel of John in chapter 1 has three forms sometimes translated apprehend, accept, and receive. (RSV) St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in chapter 1 has “we receive” related to the word “call” used three times. (RSV)  

The above were a few of our many word studies connecting with the stories we were hearing and our own lives.

4. Pastoral

a. Prayers.

My wife and I made a Celtic Spirituality Pilgrimage the summer of 1993. On Holy Island, Linisfarne, in the North Sea, I heard Deacon Kate give a definition to peregrantio which turns journey into a metaphor.

To journey with God, not knowing where you are going, but you will find out when you get there.

When I heard that I said, “I have been doing that all my life.” Peregranatio describes our gathering around the table in cyberspace. 

Celtic Prayers are basically poetry with repetition and rhythm, they were sung, and they use the metaphor to move from the earthy to the eternal. Prayers were said for all kinds of life experiences starting with rising in the morning, the various activities during the day, and retiring in the evening. They were the support for peregranatio. The practice is one we can easily employ from a metaphorical standpoint..

With the dawn of the new day may Christ ever dawn anew in my life.

A Celtic prayer with a metaphorical shift, “I kindle the flame in the hearth ... I kindle the flame of love in my heart. ... “ The secular disappears as all become one when the metaphor flips from earth to the transcendent. (de Waal, 1988)

b. research

My brother Ron found a web site with an article on metaphor entitled “Seeing with the eye of the heart” by Rachel Stanworth (Stanworth, 1997). I was able to get in touch with her, in fact, my wife and I had a most pleasant visit with her on Saturday morning, July 4, 2003, in London. She is much more into metaphor than I am and it was a pleasure to meet her and learn of her pastoral research at St. Christopher’s Hospice. This was before her book, Recognizing Spiritual Needs in People who are Dying, was published by Oxford University Press (Stanworth, 2004). 

Her research involves tape recorded interviews with 25 patients who are dying. The methodology is called “participant observer.” She describes in some detail her preparation to select and ready herself in the first half of the book. I say her preparation is as important as her findings. She makes the focus on listener concrete in comparison to the more abstract approach of Dr. Fiumara. Both come to the same perspective without knowing of each other as referenced. The internal preparation we make for listening become primary for both authors. 

Her findings are grounded in an understanding of symbol, metaphor, story, and the interior change within herself as she reflected on various aspects of language and various disciples of knowledge. She comes down decidedly on the side of pastoral care as being more open to the mysteries and that which points beyond words for ultimate meaning. A sacramental view of life is an essential for her (Stanworth, page 168-172).

A "divesting methodology" is at the heart of her listening model (Stanworth, p. 37-39). Slowly, I began to learn that to really hear another is akin to an "active divestment of self” (Stanworth, p. 39). ... real training for service asks for a hard and often painful process of self-emptying. The main problem of service is to be the way, without "being in the way” (Nouwen, 1998:79/Stanworth, p. 224).

Her approach to listen matches up with the kenotic insight of St. Paul in Philippians 2 plus Jesus instructions on dying to self. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ... emptied himself ...” (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV). 

She writes: “This is a conversational model of knowledge where wisdom does not equate with hitting some theoretical "bed rock’, but the ability to sustain dialogue in an ongoing process of discovery. The most successful outcome is shared understanding and mutual transformation. We feel that we have received something new and helpful for negotiating life and that some how have been enriched as a people.” (Stanworth, p. 7)

The last chapter on “Implications for pastoral care” completes the story journey of her preparation. Her basic orientation, “Attention is my chosen avenue for approaching the practicalities of welcoming, comforting, and learning from others” (Stanworth, p. 231). Instead of active listening we have attentive listening. And the discipline is one of intentionality. In the background is the Latin word tend for shepherd. 

For her metaphor and symbol are not simply about representing one thing in terms of another. They reveal something of the unknown and enable patients to explore and articulate the silent side of the boundaries in which they stand. Seeing the like in the unlike may even offer sanctuary in an apparently critical situation. 

Although the word poetry is not used as in Heidegger’s writing about listening, nor having a habitat as in Hadahl, she wants to explore this intangible from the standpoint of an artistic frame of reference, mystery, paradox, using story and narrative. And then taking the next step to say symbol and metaphors are the tools of story. Moving tools to name symbol and metaphor was a new leap in understanding for me (Stanworth, page 16-22). 

Her attentive review of the 25 interviews revealed nine metaphors that become the way spirituality is mediated in the here and now. “When one closely observes and listens to patients, these metaphors are clearly discernible” (Stanworth, p. 97). 

Her nine metaphors are temporality, marginality, liminality, control, letting go, archetypal hero, archetypal mother, archetypal stranger, and surplus of meaning (Stanworth, p 97-214).

Shortly after I purchased her book Bobbie became seriously ill with her third cancer, a lymphoma tumor. We had a chance to relate our own experience through these metaphors. In so doing we came to an unresearched conclusion. The metaphors to summarize the conversations wtih the 25 interviews can also be moved to any illness situation, any transition, including our own. 

We would add another metaphor from our experience. There are “gaps” in the health care system. “Gap” is the metonymy and an addition for the latin limen. “... doorway or threshold, liminality implies a borderline state. ...  " (Standworth, p. 117).We were often on the threshold of a new experience not being addressed. One gap now being addressed is cancer fatigue the side effects from treatment. 

Day by day we live on the frontier of the unknown, making new connections for meaning and living to fill in the “gaps.” We know first hand the question of time limits. How much time do we have? What do we need to do in the time we have? We know marginality, living on the edge, as a side effects require needs to be addressed at the time while lingering on into the remision stage. At present lymphadema in the arm needs attention. 

Beyond the mystery of the threshold (liminality) lies an opening for new understandings and connections. Rachel’s term “Surplus of meaning” for the ninth metaphor seems awkward to me. It is her catch all term and the place for the holy. At the same time I know what she is saying about going beyond our words to include the mystery in our encounters. 

We gave thanks in the midst of mystery on June of 2005 when the oncologist told us “complete remission” after reviewing the latest C.T. Scan. I said I want to write that down so I don’t forget. Thanks be to God! 

Rachel Stanworth’s nine metaphors, others from this presentation, still more to be identified, as well as the tools of story, all provide sensitivity in listening for clues and developing the ear of a poet. This reality becomes more important as health care moves out into the community for prevention and survivors of all kinds. Here is where we all are on the front lines of the health care delivery system. 


Herbert Benson; Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief; Scribner, New York; 1996; 350 pages 

Herbert Benson, MD, and Eileen M. Stuart, RN, C, MS; The Wellness Book: The comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness; A Fireside Book, New York; 1992.

Herbert Benson, MD, and Richard Friedman, PhD; “Harnessing the Power of the Placebo Effect and Renaming It "Remembered Wellness’”; Annual Reviews of Medicine; vol. 47; pages 193-199;

Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version, Oxford University Press, 1991, 432 pages. 

Davidson, Stuart. (1996, November/December). Tomorrow's medicine: Placebos and nacebos,Healthcare Forum Journal, p. 48-50. 

Esther de Waal; Every Earthly Blessing: Celebrating a Spirituality of Creation; Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan; 1991; 148 pages. 

Esther de Waal; The Celtic Vision: from the CARMINA GADELICA --- Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by Alexander Carmichael; St. Bede’s Publications, Petersham, Mass; 263 pages. 

Susan K. Hedahl, Listening Ministry, Fortress, 2001, 123 pages. 

George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Abingdon, 2000 

Levine, Carol, and Murray, Thomas H., Ed.; The Cultures of Caregiving; Johns Hopkins University Press; 2004; 187 pages 

Pennebaker, James. (2000, Spring). Telling stories: The health benefits of narrative,Literature and Medicine, Vol 19, No 1, p. 3-18. 

Pennebaker, James, and Francis, Martha. (nd). Linguistic inquiry and word count, University of Texas at Austin; Published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Software and Alternative Media, Inc. 

Pennebaker, James (web site search name: James W. Pennebaker) 

Smyth J.M., Stone A.A., Hurewitz A., Kaell A. (1999, April 14). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthmatic or rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized trial, Journal of the American Medical Association, 281:1304-1309. 

Spiegel, David. (1999, April 14). Healing words: Emotional expression and disease outcome,Journal of the American Medical Association, 281:1328-9. 

Stanworth, Rachel; entitled originally 'Spirituality, language and depth of reality" ; is reprinted from the International Journal of Palliative Nursing, Vol 3 No. 1, Jan-Feb 1997 

Stanworth, Rachel; Recognizing spiritual needs in people who are dying; Oxford University Press, 2003, 255 pages 

K. B. Thomas; “The Placebo in General Practice’; Lancet; Vol 344; October 15, 1994; pages 1066-7 

VanderCreek, Larry; “Tragic Events and the Benefits of "Cognative Processing’ and "Finding "Meaning’.” The APC News, Nov/Dec 2002, page 15 

Vaisrub, Samuel, Medicine's metaphors: Messages and menaces.Oradell, NJ: Medical Economics Co., 1977, 124 pages. 

Copyright © 2008, Marlin Whitmer. All rights reserved.


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