(published in Oct-Nov’98 issue of Telling Tales).

I remember listening with awe to Velveteen Rabbit, where the Skin Horse tells the Rabbit what it means to be REAL:

“REAL isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are REAL, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

This story has popped into my mind many times over the last three years since 1 April 1995. April Fool’s Day to some. A day I will never forget. It was my first as a volunteer with the Sacred Heart Hospice. Nor will I forget the internal chatter in my head. “Yes, I know you have to do fieldwork to practise the skills taught as part of a three year counselling course with the Australian College of Applied Psychology, but with people facing death.”

“What am I doing here?” I thought as I gripped the steel handle and opened the fire door poised to step out onto the wards.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Of course,” I replied.

A gentle push — I had no idea where this came from but hoped its momentum would keep me moving down the long corridors. I recited Egan’s (the standard textbook used in all counselling courses) edict on active listening skills softly. “Don’t stare. Don’t fidget. Don’t interrupt, give advice or judge. Above all reflect.”

I arrived at a room and saw an old man with a mop of white tussled hair, lying on top of a freshly made bed, close to the door. Suddenly I wanted to turn and run. And then I noticed the man’s eyes twinkling mischievously. All thoughts of rehearsed active listening skills, as per Egan, disappeared as I realised the man’s mouth was moving.

“Oh I do wish I hadn’t been so earnest when I first started out as a surgeon in the Navy, I’d have had so much more fun!” he said.

I giggled and silently thanked this stranger for helping me overcome my awkwardness, who on his next breath, launched into a story spanning many years spent travelling the oceans of the world as a Naval surgeon. The man’s eyes did not stop twinkling throughout his tale. After about an hour he smiled and said “Thanks for the yarn.”

I hadn’t said a word!

Later that night I tried to record my experience. “I sat and listened,” I began. I scratched out the words. I rewrote “I sat and listened.” My hand hung over the paper like a limp, dish rag. I realised that I hadn’t fulfilled any of Egan’s criteria in helping people to tell their story. I hadn’t reflected feelings, I hadn’t connected with meaning, I hadn’t probed, I hadn’t asked open ended questions, I hadn’t even used an empathic response. What had I done?

I tried again. “A fascinated listener…” Frustrated I ripped the piece of paper out of my notebook, scrumpled it up and chucked it in the waste paper bin. I decided to put the report on hold. “No rush – it’s not due for six months. No trouble. No sweat. Psst. How will you describe this?” I recalled T. S. Eliot’s words “It’s like making a raid on the inarticulate.” I shut the notebook, turned the volume on the internal chatter down and went back to the Hospice the following Saturday.

The same thing happened. I found myself being “a fascinated listener” week after week as the people I met retold the stories of their lives. I became curious about the storytelling process. And still I could not find the language to write my report.

Until I met a sheep farmer. A proud man from the bush who took me through fighting bush fires, checking out good grazing land for the sheep, gathering at the local pub to talk about the drought, searching my heart to make a decision as to whether or not to sell or keep the sheep during the drought, hiding in the cellar when the local Policeman blitzed the local to check for after hours drinkers and burying a good hand on the land.

Peals of laughter rang out from the farmer’s room when he told me the story of how he had ticked off a man who had walked into his room with a measuring tape around his neck — “Mate, you’ve got the wrong person, I’m definitely not ready to go yet.”

“No worries, I’m here to measure the windows, not you,” replied the Hospice caretaker. Humour in a Hospice.

Heard a story from a fellow volunteer who had encouraged relatives to talk to their father, who was in a coma, as he would be able to hear them as hearing is the last sense that we lose. The relatives found this difficult to accept until the volunteer went to say goodbye to the man before going on two weeks’ holiday. Leaning over the bed rails the volunteer spoke to the man and ended his words with the phrase “I’m off to the pub now to have a beer for you,” at which point the man opened his left eye and said “Have two!”

As I relayed these stories in my draft report, I found myself connecting with what I can only describe as a sense of the sacred. I saw, heard and felt the strength, uniqueness and individuality of the human beings who had told me their tales.

Mostly, stories that spoke of waiting for what’s next, concerns about the future, the limited amount of time left and time well spent. Stories that told of triumphs and struggles, opportunities and possibilities for the future. Stories that contained humour. Stories that illustrated who people had been and who they were capable of becoming. Stories that often became metaphors for how people prepared themselves to face the unknown. Stories that were somehow healing for those left behind. Stories that opened up anyone, who had the privilege of being a fascinated listener, to what it means to be a human being.

How can the seeds of compassion not sprout in our hearts when we witness people finding meaning in a story of a life fully lived. How can we not feel the healing power of storytelling as a form of communication? Questions.

I finalised my report, graduated from College as a counsellor and found more questions. How do I bring this experience of healing out into the world? How could I invite others to share this healing experience? It seemed to be the opening nature of Hospice work that beckoned me into my heart. It seemed to be Hospice work that nurtured, supported and inspired me by immersing me in the “human condition.” I could hardly tell the world to go and volunteer at their local Hospice.

Three years later I still attend the Hospice and through the storytelling process have found some answers to my questions.

I think as storytellers we are blessed with a unique opportunity to facilitate the opening of ourselves and others up to the experience of the sacred in everyday life, to deepen our connections to our humanity, to find meaning in our lives, to discover new values, to re-embrace traditional values, to shed old ideas, to make a growing commitment to living a life of meaning and value, to embark on an adventure in purpose, to create a sense of belonging, to share in a community of story, to make a contribution. And much, much more.

Through our stories we become “REAL, and can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” That’s the healing message that ultimately, I hope, is the contribution that I can bring to the field of counselling through the use of stories.

Sue England © 1998 — SEngland@gtlaw.com.au

(Sue has a counselling service in Drummoyne, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia).