The Healing Power of Stories

By Michael Bischoff. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 454), 2018. 27 pages. $7/pamphlet.

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Why do we get cancer? While there are risk factors such as exposure to certain substances, chronic inflammation, alcohol abuse, and bad diet, there are many other causes (known and unknown) for why and how we get cancer. We occasionally ask, as many have, why bad things happen to good people. Why do things happen the way they do?

But that’s not what this Pendle Hill pamphlet is about. The Healing Power of Stories by Michael Bischoff is about healing one’s life while living with cancer. First diagnosed in apparent excellent health at age 44, he started medical treatment and set up his own website where he connected with others to share stories and find support and encouragement. He organized his own storytelling group and then helped others organize their groups.

Many of us learned of his being diagnosed with glioblastoma (the most aggressive kind of brain cancer) in 2016 in Don’t Postpone Joy: Adventures with Brain Cancer, co-written with his wife, Jennifer Larson. Bischoff wrote an update in the January 2018 issue of Friends Journal, where he continued his story.

During that first year of surgeries, chemo, radiation, and experimental treatments, Bischoff started a spiritual practice of sitting at a favorite spot along the nearby Mississippi River. The river invited him to toss out his negative thoughts and let them float away. An old turtle lumbered by, eldering him in the ways of patience and persistence. The graceful flight of a blue heron invited him to find joy in his life. He thought of those moments by the river as he sat in worship with Friends. Wading into the water reminded him that he was wading deeper into the river of life.

This pamphlet continues the narrative, some three years after his diagnosis. Friends continue to follow him on Facebook and share stories of health journeys through, which enables loved ones to connect through personal, private websites.

Bischoff writes: “A good story brings us deeper into life. It keeps us wondering what happens next, bringing us back into the flow of our embodied emotional lives.” He found that we can keep our own story in perspective when we see our lives as part of the larger human experience. Our narratives can touch us as no mere argument can, because they reach our whole selves—body, heart, and mind. Mary Jo Kreitzer, from the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, assured Bischoff that healing is always possible, that we can open up to life even though we may not survive our cancer.

Quite apart from all that one can do to get through an illness, whether or not one survives is ultimately a mystery, dependent on factors such as luck, economics, quality of medical care, privilege (or the lack thereof), geography, and timing. Bischoff writes:

If I die tomorrow, that doesn’t take away from the miracles and healing that have already happened. Healing isn’t a one-time result but an ongoing process that doesn’t stop with death. Seen as a spiritual practice, the primary goal of healing stories isn’t just individual survival and physical health, but union with the larger flow of life moving through us. In response to George Fox’s challenge to us of what canst we say, I answer, “There is a healing river coming for all of us, and it is unavoidable.”

I contacted Bischoff and asked how this pamphlet might be used to help form a healing story group. He suggested that such a group could be started with two people who would be willing to tell a short version of their journey toward healing as they went through an illness or traumatic experience. The sharing could be structured around a set of questions like those suggested here by Jonathan Adler and Annie Brewster in their organization Health Story Collaborative:

  • Whom do you feel connected to and who has been there for you?
  • In what ways have you been an active rather than a passive character in your journey?
  • What do you have control over?
  • What have been the “silver linings”?
  • How do all of the different stories of your life fit together and make sense?

Michael Bischoff has found a path toward healing one’s life. “As we confess ways we are broken, testify about the Spirit’s movement in us toward well-being, and proclaim what we are learning as a core spiritual discipline, we can live out the healing power of stories.”

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