What’s Your 2021 Story?
Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. When I was a child, my grandmother proudly and confidently asserted that I would be the first person in my family to attend college. In an effort to prepare and inspire me, she would drive me around the campus of the University of California, Irvine – in a 1984 bronze Buick Regal – and educate me on what makes a college a college and a university a university and that if I wanted to impress people in life, I should attend the latter. To the mind of a 10-year-old boy, her proclamations were taken as fact. Indeed, I grew up to be the first person in my family to attend and graduate from a 4-year university. Sadly, the person I wanted most to attend my graduation was not present on that special day. After eight years of battle, my beloved grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s disease three months prior to graduation. But the story doesn’t end there.
Post-graduation I traveled to Europe on a four-week backpacking trip with one of my best friends. We traversed the continent by foot and train meeting fast friends along the way. The experience was glorious and while the grief of my grandmother’s transition was palpable, I could feel her cheerful presence every step of the way.
On the day before our planned return to the United States, we were walking down Paris’ famed Champs Elysees when a woman tapped me on my shoulder and asked if I spoke English. She had four tickets to sell – tickets to see my favorite pop star Madonna in concert. Truth be told, I had unsuccessfully attempted to obtain tickets to her show in Los Angeles the following September. Could this be real? How could it be that I randomly stumbled upon the perfect number of tickets to see a pop icon perform in one of the most romantic cities in the world?
To this day, I am positively convinced that the perfect timing of the experience was not random at all. I trust and believe that tickets to the concert were the ultimate graduation gift from a proud grandmother on the other side of the veil. What a story, huh?! And yes, it’s a true!
I wonder how you feel after reading this short narrative about an experience I had nearly twenty years ago. There’s a neurobiological effect of storytelling that can in some ways trick us to have emotional experiences, depending on the type of story we tell. Stories about heroism and resilience increases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, a chemical that regulates motivation, focus, and memory. Stories about love, relationships, and community stimulate production of oxytocin, which is the same hormone that endears parents to their children and is the physiological foundation for empathy and relational attachment. In combination, this cocktail of neurological chemicals can fuel creativity, enhance memory, strengthen resolve, identify purpose, and fuel resiliency.
Had I chosen to reference a story that was inherently negative, you might imagine experiencing feelings that followed suit. For instance, the television news media generally shares information that would likely be described as terrible by the vast majority. Negative news affects our brains by causing an influx of the stress hormone cortisol and flushing our system with adrenaline. In combination, these neurochemicals are intended to activate our fight, flight, and freeze response. Living in a constant state of stress not only affects us somatically, including increased headaches, forgetfulness, fatigue, and exacerbating chronic health conditions, it also impacts our mood and behavior, which can manifest as irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, fear, and intolerance.
As we move into a new year together and take stock of the threats to our physical, political, cultural, and spiritual bodies, I advocate storytelling: the telling of personal and historical accounts of resilience, finding purpose, experiencing joy, overcoming obstacles, finding solutions, loving each other especially our neighbors, finding common ground, and above all, hope. It wouldn’t hurt to turn off the television news, too.
The New York Times recently published an opinion article written by Toby Levy, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Brooklyn. I encourage you to read her submission as well and seek out her lectures as a volunteer docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Ms. Levy tells the story of her father building a 4 foot by 5 foot room in the barn of a neighbor and friend who agreed to hide the entire family, including her parents, aunt, uncle, grandmother, and three siblings. They survived two years there while most of the Jews from their town did not. Against the odds, her family, through faith and the courage of others, survived.
Ms. Levy shares the miracle of her life by telling a story of resilience. Even in the midst of the pandemic, she’s resolved to adapt to the challenges we all face together. In closing, Ms. Levy writes, “I am already thinking, planning where I am going first, what I will do first, when this ends.” She has a choice. And so do we. I encourage us all to follow her lead by sharing our own stories of resolve as we write the next chapter in the books of our lives.
For those readers who experience hopelessness, excessive anger, thoughts of suicide/homicide, and have a difficult time managing your day-to-day tasks, please reach out for support. Help is available at www.dmh.lacounty.gov.
Dr. David Hart is a counselor, educator, advocate, and writer from Long Beach, CA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.