Three Ways Reading Stories Can Heal The Soul

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When I sit down and read a story, I am never quite sure what is going to happen. Near the end of one tale I read of a 13-year old boy, I broke into sobs. A 1000-page novel so entranced me the first time I read it that I decided to read it two more times. And a modern-day myth forever etched into me how I should see myself as a man. All three of these experiences have brought healing into my soul.

The 13-year old boy was Jody from The Yearling, and as I read of his grief, it surfaced losses I had felt at that age, losses I needed to grieve in order to find hope. The 1000-page novel was The Brothers Karamasov, and I found myself longing to follow in the footsteps of the brother Alyosha and his heroic struggles to escape evil and find God. The modern-day myth was The Lord of the Rings, a story whose sweeping vistas forever expanded my soul and burned into me the calling of being a man.

I once relegated stories to child's play, thinking that concepts and ideas were the language of the mature mind. But no longer. Stories have become the deeper architecture of my soul, framing and reframing it in unexpected ways. The most unexpected of them has been the healing they have poured into my soul. How does the reading of stories heal us? I can think of three distinct ways:

1) We all have our defensive mechanisms, ways that we deny, suppress, or deflect pain. Life as we know it now is wounding, and we instinctively try to protect ourselves from further harm. Tragically, our defenses end up shutting down our hearts and shut out the presence of God as well. But stories have a subversive manner about them. When we are taken up into one, we let our guard down, if just for a moment. But that moment is enough for desire to surface, for grief to sting, and for joy to envelop. We put down the story and feel strangely alive. The healing has begun.

2) Stories give us the chance to enter the world of the hero. We find ourselves identifying with the hero of a story, feeling the struggles and rejoicing in the victories. In that identification, something vital is happening. We are being drawn out of shame and regret over ourselves and up into a character whom we aspire to be. We try on the hero's virtues, much like children dress up and playact their favorite heroes. In the place of shame or regret, hope roots and then springs up. We are not stuck. Change is possible, even heroic change. The healing is continuing.

3) Finally, stories expand our horizons and enrich our souls. We are born with a longing to connect, to widen the reaches of our individual self. Sin is a refusal to listen to that longing, to stay landlocked in our own stories, to believe that the whole world rotates around our existence. But stories open a door for us to listen and follow that longing. We can travel to places we would never go, live in times we would never know, and feel joys we would have never found. It is this expansive nature of story that points us toward the widest expansion of all, which is also the deepest healing of all. It is the healing that the New Testament parades throughout its pages — union with Christ Himself.

Isaiah carved out this remarkable statement about Jesus: "By His wounds we are healed" (Is. 53:5). I believe that the wounding of Jesus set loose a titanic river of healing for all humanity. That healing still washes over the surfaces and strata of our civilization and trickles down into the stories we read and love. I have felt those trickles as they have touched the wounded places in my soul. And I am forever grateful. 

I am also looking forward to the next story I pick up and read. Who knows what may happen?