Everyone loves a good story, and I’m no exception. Even as a child, I loved to read both fiction and true stories. My dad loved to read, too, so he would often take my brother and me to the Orlando Public Library on Saturdays and let me check out a huge stack of books from the children’s section. Back home, I’d stretch out on the couch and read every one of them, one after the other. I love a good story so much that I earned a master’s degree in literature. Today, my favorite way to relax is to become absorbed in a literary novel.
Stories aren’t just for entertainment, though. Their other benefits, according to “The Psychological Benefits of Storytelling,” include helping us make sense of our world, increasing our understanding of others, and providing us with the comforting feeling of having some control over the chaotic world we inhabit. Fairy tales, says child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, contribute to children’s moral education and help them cope with growing up. Even frightening horror stories provide us with beneficial catharsis, the release and relief of powerful, uncomfortable emotions.
Research shows that listening to stories can even stimulate the production of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that enhances our feeling of empathy for others and motivates our cooperation. Experiments that involve showing people video narratives while measuring the amount of oxytocin present in their blood have showed that, when the audience becomes absorbed in the story and is able to share the characters’ emotions, their oxytocin levels increase. When the video ends, they are more inclined to help others by doing things like donating money to a charity mentioned in the story.
All of these findings provide us with yet another excellent reason to attend mass regularly. Every week, when our lectors go to the ambo to read passages from the Bible, we hear stories that reveal the Truth and help us understand it, especially once skilled homilists — like the priest and deacons who lead my church — explain the connections between seemingly unrelated narratives. For example, this weekend, one of our deacons explained that the horrifying story of Abraham preparing to slaughter his beloved son at God’s command (Genesis 22:1) is about the importance of listening to God and obeying him, even when doing so is difficult and we don’t understand. Then, we had the very different Gospel story about Jesus taking the terrified Peter, James, and John up the mountain where they encounter visions of Moses and Elijah (Mark 9: 2-10). This narrative relates to the story of Abraham, according to our deacon, by telling us how we listen to God: we go off (“up the mountain”) by ourselves and pray. I’m curious to know if our oxytocin levels go even higher when we hear these kinds of emotional stories from the days that Jesus walked this earth.
Jesus understood the power of storytelling. He knew what anthropologists have discovered: stories are a vital component of all human cultures. Jesus knew that we’d remember the lessons he had for us if he presented them in story form. Have you noticed that we never tire of hearing them?