Campus was full of distinguished speakers this past week with colloquiums scheduled almost every day. One lecture focused on narratives and how the stories we tell have consequences on our communities and even our own mental health and comprehension. Traveling from Athens, Ohio, Rebekah Crawford presented her research findings in the presentation,”Narrative Health and Healing: Exploring Intersections Between Religion, Medicine and the Humanities.”
Crawford is a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio University. She has studied interpersonal and group communication, dialogues, religion and other subjects related to her lecture topic. After conducting research, she was able to analyze the ties between narratives and how the narratives impact important fields like medicine, religion and the humanities. Making the content more relatable to the audience, Crawford started out by showing the importance of symbols. By flashing iconic images from “Star Wars” and “The Hunger Games” on her PowerPoint, she showed how we use symbols to communicate stories. By looking at an image, we automatically form a relation to the complex stories, and the plots even start to flood back to our consciousness, much like how we use narratives in our daily lives to analyze similar situations and make unknowns.
“Narrative is a theory by which we understand the world, and a method that we use to gather and analyze information,” Crawford said.
She went on to explain how our personal stories and those we pass on to others become tools through which others comprehend life and different circumstances. She then shared three main ideas associated with this principle: identity formation, physical and emotional health and religious communities.
Crawford then used another metaphor to explain identity formation, as a snowflake. All of our identities are unique and our experiences are frozen, engrained in us, but narratives can pile up like the accumulation of snow, creating something else, and eventually becoming a glacier. This metaphor shows that, like snowflakes, the accumulation of stories we intake slowly shapes our identity. And it is our identities that control our perception of the world, how we relate to something and how we critique it. Crawford goes into further explanation by relating this idea to health and healing.
“What does narrative offer to health and healing?” she asked. “Plot equals disruption plus resolution.”
Stories in medicine are often between doctors and patients. These stories are used to communicate how a patient got hurt, with the doctor using narrative reasoning to figure out what is wrong and how to diagnose the patient. But this is just a small scale application of the idea. Crawford explained that the macro level of narrative in health and medicine actually tells society what an illness means and how we should perceive those with illnesses.
For example, albinism is by definition,”a person or animal having a congenital absence of pigment in the skin and hair (which are white) and the eyes (which are typically pink).” But this definition varies from culture to culture. In some Western societies, albinos are portrayed as villains. For example, Silas in “The Da Vinci Code” is portrayed as evil, his white skin and haunting depiction and actions. But in some African countries, those with Albinism are portrayed as special, with unique powers, sadly leading to kidnappings. This example shows how negative and positive connotations change depending on the narrative present in society.
Crawford went on to analyze mental illnesses or, “invisible illnesses,” and how they are helped and hurt by religious communities. She talked about how clergy use personal narratives to try to help those in need, and how those in need also use narrative to explain their own illnesses and troubles. These narratives leave much up to interpretation, and depending on the community, can have both positive and negative effects for those with mental illnesses and little resources to seek help.
After going into further detail about the complications of religion and mental health in regards to narrative, Crawford summed up her presentation.
“The stories that we share can either help or hurt one another,” Crawford said. “We need to be aware of the effect that narratives have on our lives and those around us.”
To start leading the way towards a positive change, understanding the narratives perpetuating our societies is the first step.