My gift for Valentine’s Day — along with a box of SpongeBob SquarePants chocolates — was a trip to the Regulator to pick out a book. On the table of recent and notable books I found The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker. He is the head of the Psychology Department at UT Austin and has spent much of his career researching what our use of language reveals about us.
The words that people generate in their lifetimes are like fingerprints. Increasingly, these words can be used to establish people’s identities and even their backgrounds. Language use, especially the use of function words [pronouns, prepositions, articles], can signal people’s social networks and the roles they play in their families, in their neighborhoods, and at work. . . . Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tooks to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. (xi)
He even has a website where they will analyze your tweets and give you a glimpse of your fingerprint from your last few ventures into social media: www.analyzewords.com. The first chapter, “Discovering the Secret Life of the Most Forgettable Words,” looks at how we use words to tell about the traumatic events in our lives. He spends some time talking about studies that have shown writing about traumatic events improves both mental and physical health. Why that is true is not the same answer for everyone who benefits, but most everyone benefits. He spent years working with others to develop a software program (LIWC) that could analyze language and help them understand how it works and what it says about us. I will save you the details, though they are interesting, and move to what they learned. The first finding “suggested that having a coherent story to explain a painful experience was not necessarily as useful as constructing a coherent story.” (11).
I had to read that sentence a couple of times. Pennebaker went on to explain that those who used their story as a means of reflection improved; those who codified it and only repeated it became sicker.
There is an important lesson here. It harmed by an emotional upheaval in your life, try writing about it or sharing the experience with others. However, if you catch yourself telling exactly the same story over and over in order to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way. . . . If you’re successful, research studies suggest that you will sleep better, experience better physical health, and notice yourself feeling happier and less overcome by your upheaval. (11)
My mind has taken two roads since that reading. The first was a walk back in time to one of the first Sundays in 2001 after the ground had opened and I was in the free fall of my depression, not knowing what to do. As we were getting ready for church, Ginger said, “I need to ask you to do something difficult. I need for you to ask for prayer for yourself in church today. I don’t think it should be me. I think it will help you to do it.” Standing up was not the hard part; speaking coherently without breaking down was difficult. But I made it through and people prayed. Then, at Coffee Hour, two different people — one I knew well and one I did not — came up and said, “I didn’t know we were allowed to talk about this out loud. Thank you.” Since I started this blog in 2005, I have used it to search for metaphors for the depression and to write as freely as I could about what hurt and what was healing and what it has meant to feel connected. Reading Pennebaker’s words helped me understand more about what I had felt to be true.
The second road rambles off the path he was walking — a tangent based on his idea that people who keep telling the same story over and over without revising and reflecting on it end up less healthy. He was not talking about faith, but that’s where my mind went: here we are in Lent once more telling the same story over and over; what has changed? The soundtrack for my musings is the old hymn, “I Love To Tell the Story.” The final verse says —
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest . . .
Yes, and unless something changes in each retelling — unless we bring ourselves into the story and think about who is hearing it — both the story and our faith wither away. There’s another hymn that begins, “Tell me the old, old story.” No. Don’t tell me that one. Tell me the one about us and Jesus. About how your faith fed you through your pain. And let me tell you mine. Then we can both prepare ourselves for the Resurrection. If we are only repeating what has been passed down, we are only anesthetizing our hearts to keep us comfortable until we die.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on. . . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese,harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify what’s stronger than hate,
would they not arrange the stage to look as if the hero came too late
he’s almost in defeat — it’s looking like the Evil side will win,
so on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins
it is Love who makes the mortar and it’s love who stacked these stones
and it’s love who made the stage here although it looks like we’re alone
in this scene set in shadows like the night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us but it’s love that wrote the play
for in this darkness love can show the way
So, also, let us say every time we gather for worship, for meals, for beers and coffee and committee meetings. We are not sick people gasping our last. We are storytellers, myth makers; we are those created in the image of the Creator, the one who breathes stories into us daily and waits for us to tell them to one another. Perhaps we are not to the Resurrection just yet. Perhaps what we have to tell is dark and full of sorrow. Perhaps what we have to tell has been hidden for too long to be spoken easily. Perhaps all those things are true. Perhaps, also, when we stand to speak we will find resonance and hope — even love — louder than the darkness.