Power of the Story

Stories are important for everyone, and particularly for indigenous people whose traditions have survived through narratives.

When I first heard of narrative medicine, I figured that western medicine had taken a page from my Native ancestors. Get the patients to tell their stories.

In fact, Columbia University boasts a program in narrative medicine directed at healthcare workers—doctors, nurses, therapists, etc.—to prepare them to listen to their patients’ stories.

Good idea, right?

I was honored when Wellbound Storytellers invited me to talk about health and communication and science, the heart of my research program.

So when I broached the topic with my honey, a neurologist, he told me that patient stories also have a dark side.

Problem is that people—sometimes—hang so tightly to their stories that their personal narratives become self-fulfilling prophecies.

His neurology training has shown him that sometimes patients stick to their stories without yielding to new information.

Like a student who once told me she couldn’t read a map—that her mind didn’t work that way. Sounded to me that she bought into her own narrative. She became her story. She decided she can’t read maps. She gave up.

Today on my bike ride home from work the man in front of me was pedaling slowly, and I was waiting for a clear path to pass him. He was older than me and seemed to be struggling a little.

And then I saw why he was having trouble balancing.

He had one leg.

I saw in his bike basket two metal crutches and noticed that he was pedaling with one leg and one foot only, and that slowed his progress.

Here’s someone who didn’t buy into the narrative of the one-legged man. This bicyclist was creating his own story; one that’s fresh and new.

And he kept that bike upright. Wobbly but upright.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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