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Stories and the Placebo Effect

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Since the earliest times we have been searchers. Beginning with the daily quest for food, clothing and shelter, our forbearers must have marveled at all they encountered. Perhaps it was in a cave long ago, flint or twigs created the first spark, and the new magic of fire kept them warm. I like to think it was a eureka moment, when they felt a belonging that gave them a purpose to make the first sounds of joy and laughter. Before the flames they discovered companionship and the need to find meaning to the forces that played outside the safety of their camp.

The grunts and sounds were not enough to express their observations and feelings. They needed a new magic and perhaps the first words slipped in unnoticed—a name for themselves or the sun and moon that sparkled in the sky. Their discovery brought new power and a need to explain the forces behind the words. When the sun shone, they worshipped it; when the thunder came, they asked for forgiveness for perceived wrongdoing. Gods were created in the images they saw all around.

As the men hunted, they probably were not aware the women were back at camp creating another miracle. With babes in arms, perhaps it was singing to soften the tears that made it happen or the desire most fully to express the deep feelings of love. One word spoken joined another and language was born.

Since the old times we have built on what started in a forgotten cave. Over time, the numerous Gods became one, with many names and ways to worship. We created God in our image as we understood, in our search for truth and meaning. We are still trying to comprehend the forces of our world and although we continue to journey to understanding, there are agreements. Scientists would point towards the forces of gravity and electromagnetism amongst others as defining forces, and others to the immense power of love and forgiveness.

We would like to believe we are smarter, understanding our world and ourselves better than those before us. Our burning desire to communicate hasn’t dwindled, but despite our longer lives and increasing ways to express ourselves, too many times war and violence are used to settle disagreements. Is it possible we took a wrong road, somewhere in the past? Or is it just our nature to be frustrated with each other and lash out because we have lost hope of finding better solutions?

I don’t believe it is either. We are missing the magic of another miracle—a spiritual answer that has always been there, hidden in plain sight. The baby rocked to sleep to the sound of a lullaby; villagers gather around a roaring fire to hear about their ancestors, and in a kindergarten, three year olds transfixed by the adventures of a rabbit with magical powers. It’s the power of stories—perhaps the greatest force we have ever known, and although it may be easy to dismiss their relevancy, the deeper we look, the more we uncover, the closer we get to their true purpose as healers for our broken worlds. We remember them in once upon a time and they all lived happily ever after, and before we see those phrases as childlike and best left to the past, they lay at the root of what we seek—the wisdom from the old times and a happy life. Virtually every culture has a similar beginning and ending to their stories because the message is the same to all.

The truth about stories probably arrived within generations of the first cave dwellers, lasting for many thousands of years. It was the golden age of storytelling. The era of yarns, tales and adventures, where the oral tradition caused stories to come alive, ever changing through each telling. The transformation happened in more recent times when an able few turned the spoken words into writing. For instance, in Britain, the little known sixth century hero, Arthur, of oral tradition, became merely a footnote successful warlord in the earliest writings, to king of all the land five hundred years later—complete with knights, a magical sword, and a round table—quite the transformation!

The new medium was quick to become popular, and today stories in their various forms still pull us into an enchanting place we crave to be. From hardcover books to e-books and movies, and instant electronic transmission around the world, it is tempting to believe we have taken what they started and made it wonderful, but would our ancestors be happy? They may find our fictional characters mesmerizing, but wonder why we haven’t become the Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot we write about. Why we still miss the breadcrumbs; the clues in our history and present; that the real power of story is not in the reading, but in hearing the spoken word that transforms to the spiritual through song.

The journey of voice begins when a baby enters their eighth month in the womb, as their heart rate slows when their mother is speaking. It continues after birth, when they react differently when their mother reads a story compared with someone else. There is comfort, nurturing and peace in the tones of the heart when it is shared with love. Our ancestors understood this and when their words were first recorded into writing they were not narrative accounts, but great poems, such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and the biblical Psalms that spoke of their stories; their wisdom.

This is their message, handed down to us throughout time. To see the connection of stories, song and spirit, that unites, not divides, that touches us so deeply it can only heal when it is shared. The signs are there. Today, at life’s most happy and sad moments we reach for the rhythm of our core to celebrate and mourn. At weddings, it’s joyful singing, love poems and after dinner stories that we see as the way to express our happy feelings. At funerals, poetry is increasingly used to sing the words the heart is too wounded to speak. According to research conducted by Professor Davis, director of the Center for Research into Reading, in England, language penetrates the emotional core of our being, stimulating the memory and emotional areas. His work with patients with dementia demonstrated that hearing poetry has helped sufferers to reconnect to the world. One patient hearing a poem spoke for the first time in a year when she heard, not read a poem, from childhood. He has advocated that each Care home should include a resident reader, to aid in memory recall, to bring comfort and calm to the wounded hearts and brains.

Stories—we live our own each day, dream them at night, read and watch them, and when that’s not enough, we make them up. Our ancestors are talking. They are pleading with us to reminisce, to remember the old days, when words became language; when language became song and our hearts touched the spiritual center that is the home of us all.
And the next time conflict is looming let’s not take the pill of argument or defend our position. Perhaps all we need is a shared campfire, where we discover the rhythm that turns our spoken words to melodies. There if we dare to believe in the force and power of story, we will see our ancestors, and know in truth and meaning that we are all one people and the need for war was just a story we chose to believe in.

(Previously published in the August issue of the New Age News Magazine)

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Author - history and spiritual story-telling, encouraging readers to find their truths hidden in plain sight and non-fiction insights into the journey of life

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