Wellness Wednesday: Authentic Storytelling, Personal Growth & Connection
by Rebekah Elkerton
Authentic storytelling is born out of lived experience. An event sticks with us, offering meaning and lessons enough to pay forward. We know that the human experience is about connection- we are social beings and need to feel a sense of belonging. The exchange of stories is a fundamental building block for bringing people together and cultivating connections based on a common interest, a shared set of ideals, or experiences that mirror another person’s. More effective than dos and don’t, the art of storytelling forms an experience for the listener, who can briefly escape into another reality. We don’t tell stories so people will change their opinion about us. We tell stories so people will find meaning within the information they're being presented with, knowing that stories entertain and educate simultaneously.
The most powerful stories bloom from honesty and introspection about an experience. Whether we’re aware of it or not in the moment, humans are wired to sniff out falsities. When we hear stories from those whom our intuition has deemed questionable or inauthentic we dismiss the story and their message will fail to resonate. Contrastingly when we feel genuine intentions from another person we ready ourselves to receive new information and seek out common ground on which we might find connection. We respect the element of vulnerability they move toward by telling their story- becoming a martyr to the room as they construct a tale worth being received and digested by those listening, with hopes of something good coming from the exchange.
The most impactful storyteller in my life has been my dad- Joe Elkerton. When he tells a story he captivates all those nearby. His life has been well lived, with few stones left unturned- he has been resilient in the face of unimaginable adversity, taken risks, loved whole-heartedly, cared gently for people in need (both family and strangers), and committed himself to growth. His many experiences have allotted him countless stories that hold nuggets of valuable wisdom for any listener. Through story, he has made me laugh until my ribs hurt, made my lip quiver while tears welled in my eyes, and filled my heart with hope as I accepted his assertion that things would somehow get better.
Every Thanksgiving I listened as I watched the faces of new dinner guests while my dad and my stepmom told the story of that one year when too much cayenne pepper was added to the butternut squash soup resulting in sweaty guests powering through their consumption of this first course. This telling was a ritual paired with the serving of our soup. The table’s guests sipped in enjoyment knowing that this year the soup was made just right.
In quieter moments when it was just my parents, my brother, and I, we laughed until together we cried and wheezed as my dad told stories of his youth. We listened to him laugh at himself and speak candidly about his mother’s frustrations with his disruptive teenage behaviour- giving us insight into a side of her we had never seen as her grandchildren. In these moments we were united in pure familial joy.
Then there were the stories I listened to him tell to others as I hid in doorways and around corners. As far back as I can remember my dad led groups of volunteers in the assembling and distribution of paper-bagged meals for the homeless population of Toronto, to be delivered on foot or by van. To introduce himself to visiting groups of volunteers he would tell his origin story. He would explain that his parents went to residential schools and the impacts that their trauma had on him and his siblings as children. Their experiences could be described as horrific. He then told them of the chapters of his life that followed and the ways his inherited trauma directed his decisions as he grew. Eventually healing and becoming a person who invests significant time weekly to feeding the homeless, his story touched people’s hearts while simultaneously educating them about how one might come to be on the streets. There was a time and a place for this particular story- a lesson within it that has been shouldered in our family as our painful yet inspiring tale of healing and taking care of the community within which we reside.
As the daughter of this master storyteller, I have long known the power of sharing my experiences with others. It took me some time to find my voice. In fact, I’m still working on speaking my truth rather than swallowing down my responses, input, or stories in moments where my words would add value. Instead, my storytelling journey began through art. Creativity is my calling and through trial and error I uncovered the importance of marinating everything I created with deeper meaning, a story of it’s own, and a purpose. I found that when meaning is applied to the creative experience, not only does the process act as a growing agent for the artist- but the person receiving the art is far more likely to feel true connection and appreciation for the piece. In this way, art of all kinds carries the potential to create change. The meaning received does not always resemble that which the artist originally intended, but by putting it into the world the artist (our storyteller) releases control, giving up a part of them to be digested by others, usually with hopes that a new perspective may be born of it.
We all carry stories of importance. When we take the time to practice storytelling, we begin to reflect on the knowledge we’ve gained in our experiences. Everybody needs an entry point to storytelling, nobody is born as an effective storyteller. The more we exchange stories with others the more we come to understand how our words evoke emotions, not by stating flat out what we want them to think, but rather by offering food for thought. In this way our listener gets to know us better, feeling welcomed by the extended hand of connection. The listener is trusted to take what they will from our offering. Through the exchanging of stories we connect with those around us. We come to know them more deeply and often gain deeper self-knowing when we step back and look at our reaction to the story being shared with us and the emotions it brings up.
Indigenous people have long understood the effectiveness of stories in unifying our communities and supporting one another’s growth. I've seen my aunties share stories of their pain with one another while they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes with the sincerest offering of support. Then 15 minutes later they’re full-belly laughing together about another story. Stories have the potential to spark an infinite number of emotions, meaningful takeaways, and follow-up actions. A story’s power resides in it’s authenticity. We appreciate when we see “the real thing,” and may remember that experience for the rest of our lives. We all have the opportunity to connect with others through story and it’s important that we seize these moments of exchange for both personal growth as well as community healing. I encourage you to feel out what comes naturally to you as your share your truth and run with it.
Cover Image by Manuel Meurisse