Happy Ending: There’s A Story Behind All Good Play

I’ll never forget how they came raffishly crashing out of the woods—bits of sticks and leaves poking out of their hair. My sister all wild-eyed and flushed. My little brother trailing dutifully behind.

“We found a man!” Chris said, eyes darting from my face to the hills behind me as if said man would appear at any moment.

“What?” I asked, not fully understanding. I had only just come outside, curious as to what my siblings were up to. My stomach twisted in disappointment at the thought of missing out on their obvious adventure. These were the things lost to me when I spent my mornings with my nose buried in a book.

My sister and brother proceeded to tell about an old hermit they stumbled upon in the woods. He lived in a giant oak tree just beyond the border of the woods, they said. Chris had talked to him for a while and the man told her his name was Hermrette. He said he didn’t much care for people; that’s why he lived in the woods—trying to get away from the prying eyes of others.

“What did he look like?” I asked her.

He was old, she said. With a long white beard. An image of Rip Van Wrinkle floated around in my mind. “Did you talk to him?” I asked my little brother. Benji suddenly looked shifty. “I just saw a little bit of him,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “I was across the creek when Chris found him.”

“But you saw him, right?” My sister prodded.

“Yeah, I think so,” Benji responded, smiling convincingly at both of his big sisters.

We were in elementary school when this grand adventure unfolded, the precise ages now fuzzy in my mind. But we’re all two years apart, so it’s likely we were five, seven, and nine. Or maybe six, eight, and ten. Who knows? We were young enough to practice expansion of belief—to open our minds wide enough to allow the possibility of the story to take root in our hearts. The story is the thing that sticks. We had our very own wood hermit, and though none of the rest of us ever saw him, he was as real to us as the trees. Many follow-up expeditions ensued, with my sister trying to retrace her steps back to Hermrette’s tree-house.

We never found him again, of course, and our young minds surmised he had moved on to another tree—chagrined at being discovered. To this day my siblings and I smile in warm remembrance of that elusive recluse.

::

When I was young I found my greatest adventures in books. I couldn’t string two words together without tripping over them in conversation, but I grew up hiding behind the words of others. Tucked under the pages of books, I felt safe. Maybe this was one reason why—when I was 12 and my parents divorced— for a little while I carried my Bible with me everywhere I went. My world was falling apart, but I would cling to this: the One Thing I knew would not change. It was the first time I would read those words cover to cover—not understanding much of them, but clinging, breathing in their life. They were real. Concrete. Stories to live by.

Children know intuitively that stories help us make sense of the world. Stories have a way of opening us up to deeper truths hidden in our experiences. Children always weave a narrative around their play—whether inner or outer. It might be the tale of a wood hermit, or the girl who wants to be known as the fastest bicyclist ever, or the boy who finally scores more points than his big brother. Children use stories to name themselves; they use stories to learn about their world—to work through complex questions that are so deeply buried in their unconscious they cannot articulate them.

Isn’t this still true in our grown-up lives? Don’t we still weave our living around stories? It’s the running dialogue in our heads, the words that lead the moving toward the big goal, the idea of the happily ever after…We live out the stories we tell ourselves. This is what I tell my patients every day I see them: It matters what we say to ourselves. My field of psychology has a technique called cognitive restructuring in which we teach people to identify maladaptive thoughts and restructure them into more beneficial ones. We teach them to rewrite their internal narrative—their story.

Why is that internal narrative so important?

In an article called The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, Leo Widrich says, “A story can put our whole brain to work.” He says:

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

But when a story is added, everything changes.

“Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.” (Widrich, 2012)

Chip and Dan Heath, those writing-partner brothers, call this “a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear.”

[W]e cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story … studies suggest there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it … (Heath, 2008)

This simulation in our minds gets us ready for action. When more of our brain is drawn into the story, it reaches beyond an intellectual level…it reaches the heart. If you feel skeptical as you read this, go spend some time with the kids. The unselfconscious way they immerse themselves in pretend play will open your eyes. Stories have a way of engaging the whole self.

This reminds me of an ancient Jewish teaching story that I read in Annette Simmons’ book The Story Factor. It goes like this:

Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire. (Simmons, 2001)

Story is a thin place. Writer Mary DeMuth says this about such a place:

The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a piece of vellum, where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal—not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond. (DeMuth, 2010)

When we hear a good story—one that reveals Truth with a capital “T”, the holy comes close. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? After reading a good book, seeing a movie that makes you cry, or watching someone you know live a courageous story. It touches a place deep inside. And God is there.

 

The above is a modified excerpt from my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts on play and featuring excerpts from my book in honor of Play it Forward, the workshop Laura Brown and I will be teaching this spring and summer. If you want to rev up your creative life, play is one tool that works! Read more about our workshop here, and feel free to ask me any questions you might have.