If I have a favorite group at the Center, it’s “Short Stories” by a landslide.
On Tuesdays at 10AM, about 10-15 of us read a short story and talk about it. I, of course, read the stories ahead of time and select them based on their length, content, and interest-level for our group. A few of us will volunteer to read the story aloud, and then we spend about five minutes looking over it again to ourselves, and then we have a discussion.
This may sound very mundane, or remind you too much of a classroom. What I’ve discovered, though, leading this group, is that stories can be like a back-door into your mind. You are being entertained through fiction, but you begin to experience emotional connection to the world you’re reading about. A well-written story can remind you of past experiences, cause you to empathize with someone different from yourself, or take you on a journey you may have been too afraid to go on in the real world.
It’s no wonder that many psychiatric hospitals, prisons, and even schools have begun to use books as therapy. Studies have shown that when we read, the same parts of our brain are working as when we are trying to understand someone’s feelings – meaning, reading is like practicing empathy on fictional characters. The same studies showed that reading slows down our minds in the same way meditation and deep relaxation does.
Author Jeanette Winterson has said, “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
If stories and fiction can increase empathy and lower depression and stress, “Short Stories” group can go a long way to help achieve the Center’s goal of ending the isolation that creates, accompanies, and perpetuates homelessness. And when we read together in a group setting and then spend time talking about it, we are doubling down on these stories’ creative and therapeutic possibilities.
Some highlights have included Ray Bradbury’s “The Last Night of the World,” which prompted discussion about finding joy and meaning in the mundane; “Half a Day” by Naguib Mahfouz elicited a meditation on the shortness of life and how it can pass you by; or reading a scene from August Wilson’s “Fences”, which reminded some of us of our own complicated relationships to fathers and father-figures.
These stories sneak up on our psyches, allowing us to experience and play-act some of the deepest questions and feelings of the human experience in a safe way. I encourage you to spend some extra time reading this week, and perhaps consider reading something with another person and talking about it after. Better yet? Join us on a Tuesday at 10AM sometime. It’ll be worth your hour to experience empathy, relaxation, and imagination in community.
Article Contributed by Staff Member Kevin Nye