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Telling Stories

When you came to the station and saw an “old timer” there, you knew there were going to be stories. Stories of how it used to be. Stories of fires long gone out. Stories of how firefighters used to do the work. Usually these guys helped themselves to our coffee and the coffee ran out long before the stories did.

Some of these stories seemed to go nowhere. But in the hands of a master storyteller, some became legend within our fire department. You know the ones: the stories we all told even though they happened years before some of us were even born.

As a chaplain, I love these stories, no matter how many times I hear them. As a chaplain with a heart for first responders, I want to be aware of these stories and look for ways to make the most of them.

Why do we tell stories? Why are stories so woven into the fabric of who we are as people, and so ingrained in the life of our culture as first responders? I suggest five reasons.

1. To be part of a common narrative

Stories shared within the fire service allow our first responders to share in a common story. Even if we did not experience the event first-hand, we join our brothers and sisters in the story vicariously. In the story we get to go to places we have not been. We join others in those times of life and death. This is important because it helps develop a sense of group; as they are not alone in their experience, we are not alone in ours.

When I as a chaplain participate in these stories, I, too, become part of the common narrative of the department.

2. To teach

Not all training happens at the academy or on the drill field. Any of us who have been in this field for long know that what happens in the field is rarely “textbook.” It may not always come across as teaching, but telling their stories is how a lot of senior firefighters pass on knowledge and experience to the next generation. Methods and tactics have changed over the years but many things stay the same.

The same is true for chaplains. As a new chaplain I learned a lot by listening to my senior chaplains. Listening to their stories helped me with future calls when I was the only chaplain on scene.

3. To speak to the heart and move the mind

Stories help inspire others to action. How many of us remember an older firefighter or police officer tell the stories that eventually motivated us to get into this field? When we tell stories to young people, we help inspire them to achieve greater things.

But there is a warning that must come with this. We see some of the most horrific things, and when we share these, especially with those who are young or new, we risk the real possibility of leaving them with vicarious trauma. Sometimes it’s a fine line. So be aware of your audience.

4. To leave a legacy

Stories allow our retired firefighters to have a shared legacy that goes beyond their career span or even their lifetimes. As a chaplain, what better way can I honor these brave men and women than to listen to their stories?

5. To help us better understand our traumas and our joys

Finally, stories help us better understand what we have experienced. If you have ever been around someone who has been in a really dangerous situation in the fire service, you know you will hear that story many times over the span of your friendship. Retelling the story allows us to process the trauma so we can find healing. You may notice overtime that these stories change a little here or there. That’s okay. That helps the storyteller makes sense of the trauma so it’s no longer such a violation of their psyche and allows them to make sense of their world.

As a chaplain, I see such storytelling as a process of continued healing. Stephen Joseph, in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, talks about how telling our story can help us come to understand the events that happened to us and lead us towards a path of healing:

“It is through storytelling that we ultimately make sense of our experiences, piece together what happened to us, assimilate information that is concordant without views of self and the world, and accommodate other information that is discordant--while at the same time rebuilding our worldview and our understanding of ourselves.”

In a world more and more dependent on science and medicine, could it be that we are overlooking one of the greatest tools to our healing… making sense of our own story in the light of adversity?

Application for Chaplains

Chaplains bring a unique set of gifts to the healing process that don’t always show up in the fire or police department’s bottom line. In the midst of turmoil and confusion, we can help people better come to grips with the narrative of their lives, especially as it relates to their illness or trauma. As Joseph goes on to say, someone’s faith story reshapes who they are:

“Culture-driven stories shape how we all tell our own personal stories and influence our sense of what stories are legitimate to tell. Religion is a powerful force in this regard. And when trauma happens, the stories we tell have the potential to render our pain significant, and to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless experience.”

When we work with those of other faiths, this can be a difficult task. Our experience doesn’t necessarily coincide with the faith or experience of the other person. This is where an ability to listen sympathetically comes in handy. But where we find some common ground and can speak into another’s life the truths of who they are in God’s eyes, we can help remind them of the narrative that God is writing in their life.

Retelling our story in light of our faith allows us to see our situation from a larger perspective. It buoys up our soul and allows us to view the trials from a different perspective, as part of the story that God is writing. This narrative is one that allows for the sin of man and the grace of God. It also allows us to make sense of the physical and emotional pain that we are going through. It is a story where there is pain in life, but where God’s grace and forgiveness abound.

Here are five ideas for helping people with their story.

1. Listen to their story.

People tell their story over and over to help redefine the narrative until they feel comfortable with it, though some don’t seem to get there. As long as they continue to process the story without getting stuck, it is good to let them process at their own speed.

2. As you actively listen, it’s okay to remind believers how God has been working in their lives.

Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the story and forget that God is walking with you through it.

3. Help them understand that bad things happen to all of us.

As believers, we are not spared trauma, though we have some resources for making sense of it and finding comfort that others may not have.

4. Help them explore the meaning in their story.

Our life stories makes more sense when we have an understanding that they have purpose.

5. Help them understand that the story will continue.

If it is appropriate you may be able to remind them that God and others are there and will give them strength during this time.

I have found that one of the greatest honors one can give another person is to ask them about their story. And as it turns out, this can also be one of the most healing things you can do.

Chaplain Chris M. Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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