Stories for the heart: How the transformative power of narrative nourishes us – Lizzie Chase

Storytellers Nsw Member Lizzie Chase kindly gave us permission to post her recent speech on the power of storytelling.


My name is Lizzie Chase and I am here to talk about stories for the heart and the way in which stories can nourish and transform our lives. I will start by acknowledging that we meet on Aboriginal land and I wish to pay my deep respect to Elders past and present and to any Aboriginal people present here today.  My life has been truly enriched through stories told to me by Aboriginal people and I believe they are story keepers with great wisdom and insight to share.  I’d like to dedicate this talk to darling baby Lucy whose story is just beginning.


Why are stories so important to us? What are our favourite stories? On the deepest level we connect with story because each of us is living out our own life story – with its unique beginning, middle and end. The stories that we read in books, watch in films or listen to in podcasts, poetry or song are mirrors of our own experiences of a life journey, with joys and sorrows along the way.  As an educator, I know that the concepts of SAME and DIFFERENT pervade every experience we have in life. As we learn something new, we find what is the same and what is different, to connect our new learning to our previous knowledge. For many people, stories of people in the SAME situation can be very nourishing, while for other people it’s the stories of people who are DIFFERENT from us that feed our souls. We could say that some people like to read stories about their own tribe, while others want to find a new tribe to join. There is yet another group, filled with curiosity, which wants to look into other people’s lives to understand more about what it is to be human. Stories build empathy and compassion for many, while for others, a story is nourishing because it is a delicious escape from reality.


We live in the time of the story flood – in which news reports and social media fill our landscape with stories which jostle for our attention. Stories do not just operate personally in our lives, they operate culturally. Stories shape politics, the future of the environment, and the fabric of our society. The exciting thing is that it is not only the stories of the powerful that hold sway any more – people who have historically been at the bottom of the heap are now able to get their stories out and to have their voices heard. Today’s event is to raise money to empower girls and women both globally and locally and many of you will be here because you believe the story that girls should be educated, should be free to choose who they marry, as an adult, should be safe from female circumcision, should be safe from sexual harassment, free from rape in war, free to vote, free to own land and free to manage their own finances. We are so aware that what later becomes a flood of stories starts as a trickle – how brave are the first storytellers who speak up! So much pressure is put on them to stay silent – we know the pressure is massive – but long overdue apologies to victims of church based sexual abuse show us that if a few brave people can band together to speak their story, eventually more will join them, as in the Me Too movement. We know very keenly that there is a constant tension between those who want to control the story and those who want their voices to be heard. As a child, I was not taught what really happened to Aboriginal people when the British arrived. Many children today are not hearing the story about the children on Nauru – one day in the future, I believe that we will hear their stories loud and clear.


The story flood is so massive though that we sometimes need to shield ourselves from its impact. How can we navigate our way through these waters so that we are transformed and nourished by story and do not drown under the tidal wave of other people’s pain? How can we navigate so that we still hear other viewpoints and don’t just hear echoes of our own thoughts? As a counsellor, I have been struck by Michael Leunig’s phrase that in the end there is only “Love and fear. Love and fear.” How can we make a choice to embrace love and not to let fear win? I have three ideas that I will now explore. They may help us to see things in a fresh way - which is one of the most powerful things about storytelling for the heart. If the world looks a little different after we’ve heard a story, that can be a wonderful thing. Stories can be precious guides to new ways of seeing and being.  Stories can be messengers which prompt us to change our ways or reconsider our biases.  





1.      CHERISH YOURSELF - Choose stories that strengthen your identity: I have found it so important to seek out stories which cherish me. We can’t save the world but we can try to live the truest version of our own story by finding narratives which strengthen our identity, stories which we find relaxing and nourishing or energising and inspiring. ‘First put the oxygen mask on yourself’- this is so true for women who often are carers and nurturers. Enjoy those movies, books and songs which affirm who you are – which mirror back to you the things that you love and value. Go easy on yourself, take that walk, enjoy that bath, take time out in nature or with a friend because you are all living out your own life story – with its own beginning, middle and end - and you need to nurture yourself along the way. Be alive to your family story, if you are always the carer, sometimes take a little break for yourself. Try not to get hooked into family dynamics that do not serve you well.  Find stories that connect you with your best self. I love to tell myself the story of the two Buddhist monks who were walking along near a raging river. They met an old woman who could not cross because she knew she would drown. She approached the monks and said, ‘I know that your monks’ vows forbid you to talk with women or to touch them but will you carry me across this river so I can reach my home?’ Without a word, one of the monks carried her safely across and they continued on their way. Hours later, the other monk said angrily to his friend, “Why did you carry that old woman? You know our rules forbid us to do this!” The monk answered him calmly, “Three hours ago, I carried that old woman for two minutes - but you are still carrying her.” This story nurtures my deepest sense of who I want to be in the world – I want to be a person who lets go of anger and I find this story very nourishing.


2.      CHALLENGE YOURSELF – Choose stories which stretch you and push you forward. I made up the ideas of RAFT, RIVER and RAINBOW to explain this… If you are what I call a raft person, you may typically race into action when things get tough, making decisions and finding solutions. If you are what I call a river person, you may typically go with the flow and trust that life will bring you what you need. If you are a rainbow person, you may typically reach outside yourself to find the soul food that you need when times get tough – getting out into nature, listening to music, praying and so on. I suggest that you occasionally act against your ordinary impulses – in order to extend your personal story. If you are a doer, sometimes go with the flow. If you usually go with the flow, sometimes take strong action. If you are a doer, sometimes get lost in music or nature for a while. It won’t feel very comfortable at first, but it will stretch you. Oftentimes, other people are looking at your life story and they can see ‘the elephant in the room’ in your story – the blind spot that we can always see in other people’s stories but not in our own. Try to notice the stories you tell yourself and change them just a little – if you are too harsh on yourself, try to be kinder in your self-talk. If you only hear stories or people that agree with you, try to hear some stories or people that don’t. The tiniest changes that you make to your usual story will have lovely ripples – but be prepared for the resistance you will feel towards change – because our stories try to push along the same track for a lifetime! I have always loved the little story about the wise Indian who told his grandson, “We have two wolves inside us, one is full of anger, hostility and evil and the other wolf is full of light, love and kindness and they are constantly at war with each other.” “Which wolf wins?” asked the grandson. “The one we feed,” answered the grandfather. A dear friend of mine challenged me when I told her that this was one of my favourite stories. She said to me, “Let your two wolves sit down together in front of the fire. They do not need to be at odds.” This was a deep message for me because I am inclined to swallow negative feelings in order to stay optimistic – my friend was encouraging me to have a full range of emotions - to feel at ease - to know that I can experience anger, pain and fear and that they can sit alongside feelings of joy. I am so grateful that my friend helped me to see what was hidden from me and that I can find so many insights and surprises in books, movies and songs – they leap over the walls of my certainty and jump into my heart - to transform what I didn’t even know was troubled territory.



The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning, a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


3.      CHOOSE to be a CHAMPION for ONE story - for one community or place. This can only be done if you have spare energy – we have enough to do already within our small circle of friends and family.  But if you DO have spare energy, choose one community, cause or place to commit to and enrich that story. For some people, it is an environmental cause like anti-fracking or resisting mining. For other people, it will be a community group like a musical society, a quilting group, a refugee support group, helping a neighbour who is unwell, coaching a soccer team – whatever links you to something beyond your immediate circle. We cannot respond to every tragic story that we hear in the news or on social media, but we can make a difference if we choose to focus our efforts. It is really important to limit your exposure to the story flood if it is making you feel overwhelmed or disempowered. You can take time out from horrific stories and focus your efforts where you can make a difference. If listening to stories in the media empowers you with knowledge, then keep listening and learning. If you need to take a break periodically, that is also completely okay. Be a champion only when you are able.


Which story communities keep me nourished?  I will put this talk at

so you can find these links later.   I enjoy articles on the Facebook page Big Fix – Blue Mountains because they present news about what people are doing to build communities and tackle complex issues. I love the Humans of New York Facebook page. I really enjoy Conversations with Richard Fidler. I love the MOTH stories and This American Life. I follow the Storytellers NSW Facebook page and I go and listen to their lovely stories. I belong to the Australian Fairy Tale Society and attend some of their storytelling days. What all these story communities have in common is their resistance to polarised thinking. They bring people together rather than dividing them. They celebrate a humanity which is not black and white – it is full of shades of grey. We have more in common with each other than we sometimes know and as we listen to each others’ stories, we can learn so much from one another.  Stories for the heart are those which can show us the way – they can show us the people we could be, the futures we can work towards together. They are deeply inspiring. Sometimes they are stories which warn us of the paths we should not take – stories from history have so much power in this regard. Stories hold the memories we need to hear.  Thank you to those women who struggled for the vote. Stories for the heart share lessons that people have learned and grown from. I love stories that give voice to those who have been previously silenced. Thank you for speaking your truth. Every story matters.           




I will finish with a short version of a traditional story I heard at a storytelling conference a few years ago, called The Sky Woman’s Basket. “Once there was a farmer who had a milking herd of cows and they gave him plenty of good milk to take to market. Until the morning that he noticed that the cows would give him no milk at his morning milking session. He tried moving the cows in case there was a problem with the pasture but nothing he tried worked. He decided to stay up all night to see what was going on. As he hid, he saw a ladder unfurling from the sky and seven beautiful sisters came down this ladder and began milking his cows. They collected the milk in pails which they put into their baskets. Once finished, they began to climb up the ladder but the farmer sprang quickly from his hiding place and grabbed the youngest sister so that she could not escape and follow her sisters. The ladder and the sisters disappeared from view and the farmer spoke sternly to the youngest sister. “You have stolen milk from my cows and cost me a lot of money at the market – you must stay here and work off your debt to me – only then will I release you to be with your sisters again.”


The youngest sister worked hard and over her time with the farmer she began to hold him in high regard. One day, he said to her, “Your debt to me has been repaid and you are free to leave now – but I have grown very fond of you and would be honoured if you would stay here and be my wife.”  The woman replied, “I too have grown very fond of you and would gladly stay and become your wife – but there is one request that I make of you – and if you do not agree to it, it will not go well between us. Will you promise to honour my request? Never look into my basket.” The man eagerly promised to respect her wish and for many years it went very well between them and they were happy together. The basket leant against the wall of their bedroom and the farmer never looked inside it.


But as time passed, he became more and more curious about what might be inside that basket. He thought to himself, “She is my wife and so in a way that is my basket – I will just take one quick look - she will never know – and it is my right as her husband to know what is inside her basket.” He quickly looked inside her basket and he began to roar with laughter. Hearing this, she came running into the room and saw what he had done. “Wife – what was so special about your basket – I have looked inside and there is absolutely nothing in there!” Without a word, the Sky Woman gathered up her basket and left the house, never to be seen again. The farmer wandered around the countryside seeking the woman he had loved so much, heart broken and despairing. And some people say that the Sky Woman left because the farmer broke his promise and looked inside her basket. While other people say that the Sky Woman left because when he looked inside her basket he saw nothing.”                            



The raft, the river and the rainbow:
Click on Image Cards to the left above the pictures to download pictures and discussion points.


Tea with Alice:


Rumi quotes:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.


Maya Angelou quotes:

My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.


Michael LeunigThere are only two feelings