Healing Stories

From Staff training in Panatau
By Didi Ananda Devapriya

According to Neohumanist philosophy, human life is an ideological flow. Our lives are not just made of a chronological series of events, but rather of stories that give those events meaning and color. Human life is an endless quest for meaningfulness, without which life is a dry and barren desert. We are trying to discover where we have come from, who we are, and where we are going. This quest leads us ultimately towards spirituality, and discovering a spiritual perspective with which to understand, interpret and direct our lives. Stories and story telling are an important part of this process. As our understanding and perspective evolves, we continually reinvent our own stories and look for inspiration in stories that mirror our inner hopes, dreams and values. In fact, stories are a type of magic mirror, in which we seek to know ourselves and our world. The stories that attract and influence us the most are those that reflect our own positive potential. All of us need stories that help us to reflect on and assimilate positive value from the obstacles that we have faced. We receive the inspiration to aspire towards greatness from the heroes we find in stories. For this reason, Shrii P.R. Sarkar emphasized the important role of writers in shaping the collective consciousness. He encourages writers to be aware that they are the pioneers of new trends of thought, and therefore to accept the responsibility to help uplift society. Neohumanist Education also places particular value on storytelling as one of the best mediums for transmitting values and positive role models, as well as encouraging creativity, imagination and the capacity to visualize.

Stories can also be a particularly valuable instrument in healing trauma in children. The very first months and years of life, fundamental ideas about the safety of the world, core beliefs about the self and trust in others are formed. Children that have survived extreme neglect and deprivation during that crucial stage, such as our children in the Familia AMURTEL children’s home in Panatau, that were abandoned in the Romanian state institutions, face many difficulties because of this neglect. As the conscious and sub-conscious layers of mind are not fully formed at birth, infants do not have a separate sense of ego-identity. Therefore, they tend to believe that they are the cause of everything that happens to them, and in traumatic situations this can lead to a deep-rooted sense of shame, based on the assumption that they must be bad and deserve the treatment they received. It is important for such children to be able to re-evaluate this mistaken assumption though, and realize that they did not deserve neglect, abandonment, or abuse. Storytelling can be an important tool in this process. However, most of the typical stories in books for young children are about children living with their parents in a family, and often the main themes of such stories is that mother and father will always be there, always love you, always find you when you are lost, basically reinforcing the lessons of love, safety, and trust that most children are learning in that stage. However, children who have had a painful early experience of the world also need stories to help integrate their experiences and find a healthy perspective and outlook. As models for such stories are not easily found in ready-made books, it is possible to invent more personalized stories that do reflect their lives and positive inner potential.

Recently in Panatau, we did a staff training about using and creating stories in a special way to help our children overcome their traumas and understand the world in a healthier way. Already we have been using theatre, movement and stories, as well as other expressive arts for many years, as we have found that creative expression helps to liberate the children from many complexes and discover their talents. The symbolism of storytelling provides a gentle and indirect way to address early traumas and problem behaviours, as children are much more open to listen to a story about an interesting character facing and overcoming obstacles that they can relate to, rather than directly analyzing psychological issues.

For example, all of our children in our youngest group (ages 5-9) were tied to their beds in the maternity hospital where they spent their first years of life. After the revolution, the Romanian government stopped opening up more state orphanages because of foreign pressure and concern. However, 10,000 babies continue to be abandoned a year. So the children are often left in the maternity wards where their mothers abandon them right after birth, or following illnesses. The maternity hospitals are not equipped to properly care for so many small children, but they remain there usually for up to two years before they are placed in either adoption or state institutions, as places become available. As is sadly still often the case, there were not enough staff to supervise the children properly, and so they tied their wrists to the iron crib bars so that they would not wander off. When the children first arrived in our home in September of 2002, it took months before the red marks from the restraints disappeared physically, but mentally, still the impression lingers in their minds. For example, one of the small boys, when faced with any new challenge, tends to say “I can’t do it” and gets very agitated and upset and runs to his bed for safety where he begins rocking himself for comfort. After discussing this problem, and trying to understand the root cause of the behaviour, we came up with a story for him.The story is about a small yellow bird named Galben that lives in an old rusty iron cage. The cage is not very clean, and smells bad, as the owners are often busy and forget to take care to clean it. They also forget to put food and fresh water in it everyday, so many times the bird doesn’t have enough to eat. But he has been living in the cage for a long time, and he is used to it. It is home for him, and somehow he feels safe, as he knows his cage very well. One day a large colourful bird with a blue tips on his wings flies up to his cage. He sees the bird inside, and feels so sad that the little bird has never had the chance to fly in the great wide blue sky like all birds are born to do. So he opens up the door to the cage and calls to Galben, “Little friend – come and fly with me and be free from this cage!” But Galben was scared. He had never been outside his cage. He says “No, I can’t! I have never been outside before!” But the bluebird is patient and gently coaxes him to try, promising to help him learn how to fly. Eventually Galben decides to try and he stretches his wings for the first time. He jumps from the open door and his little wings flap hard, and raise him up in the air, but they are not strong enough and after only three flaps he falls and lands hard on the floor, crying. He gets up again, but flies right back to his cage and doesn’t want to ever come out again. The bluebird gives him a bit of time to recover from being frightened, but again comes and calls him “Little friend, come and fly with me and see the world from the top of that tree…”In this way the story continues, with the bigger bird continuing to coax the little one out of his cage, and eventually he gets stronger and braver and learns to fly to the tree, then to the mountain, and finally high into the sky amongst the clouds. At first he always returns back to his cage after each adventure, but one day he goes so high and has so much fun that he forgets all about the cage and finds a new home with many other birds in a tree full of bird song and happiness.

We are still experimenting with this new form of story telling, but it is surprisingly easy to invent stories when using them to enter into the world of a specific child and communicate a positive message that you think may help him. In our kindergartens as well, we are also using personalized stories to help children to understand and accept the children with disabilities for example.

Stories have a way of resonating deep within us and linger in our minds and provide new meanings for years. Often we remember stories more easily than facts or other types of lessons. Especially for children that have special needs, stories that reflect their world and experiences help them to feel more accepted and less isolated and alienated.

Take a Romanian Countryside Vacation
About 15 km from Panatau, in the nearby village of Poieni, AMURTEL has an organic farm with a summerhouse used by our Familia AMURTEL children during the summer vacations. The farm, as well as some additional orchards, and two cows living next door to the home, provide a good degree of self-sufficiency in meeting the food needs of the home. Plums, cherries and apples are canned and made into jams. Potatoes, beets, celery root, apples, and carrots are stored in a cold cellar. Other vegetables like eggplant, beans, spinach, peppers, tomatoes and parsley are frozen. We even make our own organic popcorn! It is a very productive farm, however, much of the year, the house is not utilised. We are beginning to take steps to link with an Agro-tourism Agency to make it available to travellers, and would like to invite friends and sympathisers to consider coming to Romania for a countryside vacation. We are especially equipped for hosting groups of youth, and the house contains about 18 bunk beds.