The Power of Storytelling And How It Could End School Shootings
Stories allow us to see the world as it is now, envision a better reality and take steps to make it happen
“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
When I was seven months pregnant — the first of three pregnancies to make it that far — I went to a class about childbirth. It was held in a yoga studio in an idyllic part of Brooklyn, and the room was filled with women and their partners chatting about everything except the one thing we all had on our minds: fear.
Every one of us had heard horror stories about giving birth. We’d seen movies showing women screaming in agony. “Childbirth is the single most painful experience of your life,” was one of those things people love to say. And now it was staring us in the face, and we were terrified.
Our teacher, a sprite-like woman with an air of wisdom, knew our fear all too well. She’d seen scores of women like us come through her door.
So she did something that shocked the fear out of us.
Shutting off the lights, she turned on a projector and put up a picture. It showed a naked woman sitting on a delivery room table. Her head was thrown back in ecstasy, her spine was straight and her body practically glowed as she held her still-wet newborn in her arms. She was laughing in pure delight, and she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.
I could hear gasps, including my own. None of us had ever known that something like this was possible. The photo flew in the face of all the stories we’d been told.
The experience of giving birth had not left this woman broken, scarred and traumatized.
Instead, it had turned her into a goddess.
I kept that picture in my mind over the next two months. As the contractions started, I remembered the woman’s smile, her expression, her bliss. Her face stayed with me as I lay in a bathtub at 3 AM, breathing my way through pain that got more intense.
From that woman’s picture, I was able to create a story for myself that kept me calm. The pain I was feeling had a clear purpose. I could see my labor as part of something bigger, a necessary step to transforming into that goddess I’d seen in the photo— and, most important of all, to holding my baby.
I wish I could tell you that the rest of that day had a happy ending.
I wish I could post pictures of my daughter here, smiling and cooing in the onesies and blankets that I’d packed and brought to the hospital for her. But no such pictures exist.
By the end of the day, I did get to hold my baby. Her eyes were closed — they had never opened, and they never would.
Her heart had stopped during labor. They would never figure out why. Still, I stroked her soft hair, counted her fingers and toes and cradled her to my chest. As I held her, I stopped crying for the first time in hours. Then the nurses came, lifted her from my arms, and took her away.
What happened in the days, months and years after that still feels like a slow-motion horror film. The crushing grief, the postpartum depression, the PTSD. For over a year, every day felt worse than the day before, with no sign of a bottom — and no guarantee that things would ever get better.
Once I was physically able to function in society, the emotional pain was cruel. I would leave the house feeling like I was walking naked and everyone around me held a blade. The cuts came from everywhere and anywhere — seeing a pregnant woman on the subway, hearing an infant’s cries. Everything that had been pure and good was now filled with trauma and pain.
It got worse. And worse. The darkness grew.
Then I met someone. He helped me. Then I met someone else. She helped me as well. A tiny light started to shine in the darkness. I began to learn new things. New ways of coping. Then new ways of being and thinking. My viewpoint on the world changed, and with it my experience of living.
I stopped trying to “get over” what had happened — that was impossible, and always will be. Instead, I evolved, and moved into the next chapter.
I started to see that the dark time had been just one part of my story, and new sections were ahead. I saw ways of giving my daughter’s life a greater meaning, and finding the power to help others. I realized that I could take ownership of my own narrative.
And in this realization, my life was saved.
Since school shootings began crushing our collective reality, we’ve been locked in a terrifying chapter of this country’s story. The question has not been, “Will there be another school shooting?” but, “When and where will the next one be?”
This grisly state of affairs has loomed like a sword of Damocles over every U.S. school. Any day at any time, the lives of innocents can be lost and communities thrown into grief and chaos. We sit and we wait, then we rage as the news cycle churns out platitudes, and then we mourn. Shoot, rinse, repeat.
Those of us who desperately want to end this pattern have felt helpless, not seeing a way through the quagmire of political posturing and that most infuriating phrase, “thoughts and prayers.”
We’ve been stuck in the worst part of the story, feeling continually beaten down and unable to see our way through the darkness.
Thankfully, every one of us who wants an end to this horrific chapter has a superpower. We all have a unique and powerful ability to take charge of our story, and move it forward in the highest and best way.
Stories give us clarity. They let us take facts and information and layer meaning and context on top of them. We can rise out of the emotion of immediate events, see new pathways for the future and put together a plan of action that’s rooted in possibility, intention and hope.
In short, stories allow us to see the world as it is now, envision a better reality and take steps to make it happen.
For years, the NRA and the politicians it supports have been controlling the story, thwarting gun control legislation and blocking measures to curb school shootings. Meanwhile, the death toll has risen. More guns bought, more children shot in classrooms, more parents left shattered.
Now, we’re finally taking charge. We can see the bigger picture, define the characters, know the plotline and chart the steps to a positive outcome. We have clear heroes and villains. We have champions rising to the challenge and gaining ground. Previously minor characters are stepping up to take powerful roles.
At last, we are taking back our story and creating a chapter in which no child risks his or her life by going to school.
For the parents who have lost children in this long awful chapter, there’s no going back.
The losses were cruel, horrible and painful — that, unfortunately, we can’t change.
Still, if we continue to drive forward, channel our empathy and own our power to force reform, then we can give back something priceless: meaning. Every parent who lost a loved one in a school shooting can see that his or her child mattered.
We can show these families that through their pain arose a powerful force for good. They helped us — forced us — to rise above our old limitations, stretch ourselves and find the strength to evolve as a society.
When the victory finally happens — when gun control laws pass, young people in obvious distress are taken seriously and/or given the help they need, and students and parents can go through a normal day without fear of violence— then those who have been forced to grieve will get to see a new chapter. And hopefully, with that, they’ll get some relief.
The pain of losing a child never goes away. I’ve made my peace with that fact, as have many others.
But the suffering — the nagging sense that your pain was all for nothing, that no one cares, that the rest of your life will be a nonstop series of agonizing moments with no greater purpose or meaning — is all based in story.
And once we change that story, the suffering stops forever.
Now is the time to take back our agency and change gun control laws.
We are not powerless. We can end this part of our national story for good.
Below are some resources if you would like to take action.
- March: March For Our Lives
- Sign: Gun Control Now
- Support: Moms Demand Action
- Follow: @Emma4Change
- Join the Conversation On Upping Empathy : The Empathy Group
- 10 Ways We Can Prevent School Shootings Right Now (PBS NewsHour)
- 10 ways schools, parents and communities can prevent school shootings now (The Conversation)
- Preventing School Shootings (Violence Prevention Initiative)
- Techniques of Grief Therapy: Creative Practices for Counseling the Bereaved (Robert A. Neimeyer)
- Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome. (Rebecca Soffer & Gabrielle Birkner)