The power of a story
Hormones and the fall of the wise woman

Power of a story ©iStockphoto.com/mashabuba

Stories bring meaning to our lives. We tell our children stories, we gather around the fire to hear tales, we read, we watch, we listen. And we imagine. It is through the power of a story that we understand our world and make sense of it. No argument, no clever debate, no information exchange will ever move us like a good story that captures our imagination.

It is the power of a story that gives us the passion to change the world.

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And great leaders know that harnessing the power of a story to give people's lives meaning is what creates loyal followers.

We can change ourselves and our world if we change our stories.

And just as a story with a positive theme creates a force of great and positive change, so a story with a negative theme can be a force of disempowerment and disillusionment.

Negative theme stories are as powerful as positive theme stories. Like any strong story, a negative theme story draws on metaphor and language to create meaning and credulity, giving the story its power.

And negative theme stories are insidious. They creep into our thoughts and beliefs, they influence our culture, they become so much a part of our way of thinking that not only do we believe them to be true, we actually come to think that there is no other reality.


How the power of a story caused the fall of the wise woman

One day in the 1960s a book was published with a story that was to cast a shadow on the lives of women for decades to come. The story's main character was the middle-aged female body and the tale was brought to life through the most dominant and powerful metaphor of the time: the machine.

According to this story, which has been told and retold and retold, again and again and again, women's bodies are not only like machines, they are machines.

The story line is that a woman has a sole purpose in life: to reproduce. Once this purpose has been fulfilled, these machines that are women's bodies become useless, redundant and worst of all: ugly. And just like a worn out machine, women after menopause are fit only for the scrapheap, worthless and best invisible.

But in this compelling story - as in many convincing stories - there was a goodie waiting in the wings to save the day. A doctor-prince, was ready to emerge from the forest, sword in hand, to redeem the unfortunate lost princess who was about to become a horrible, ugly old hag: the prince was dressed in a multi-coloured coat from head to toe, all made up of sweet and tasty hormones.

To rescue the aging princess, put everything back to normal and live happily ever after, the prince just had to help her understand that her machine body was in decline, and that her ovaries – those wonderful little invisible organs that make her feminine - were failing. If she believed that her body was a machine, fuelled by ovaries that were failing to produce chemicals now she was older, then it was just a short step to convince her to simply replace the chemicals with wonder pills from his technicolour hormone coat.

Storytellers since the beginning of time have reasons for telling their stories. Some have the best of all possible motives, but some are less honourable. Sometimes a story is told to explicitly achieve one end, while all the time the underlying motive is to profit the storyteller at the expense of the listener’s credulity. After all, the power of a story is so strong, precisely because it invites the listener to suspend disbelief, to enter the fictional world and to switch off their critical faculties.

And as stories are told and retold, even the tellers themselves begin to believe them. New storytellers take up the tale, blind to the insight that the world they describe has been imagined, elaborated, and interpreted beyond all proportion to give a particular meaning that fits the culture of the day. Just as stories create and sustain cultures, so they interweave with contexts and meanings, creating beliefs. And beliefs alter our thinking, which influences our behaviour and ways of being. So by subtle and not so subtle ways, sooner or later the stories we tell and the metaphors we live by, impact our very biology. A thought becomes a physical change. A strong story within a cultural milieu provides a context in which we co-create how we live our lives and experience our bodies.


Time to change the story

We know that women in non-Western cultures have different experiences of midlife from those of women in Europe and North America. In some cultures until the arrival of biomedicine, there was not even a word for menopause. We know that historically women and their doctors gave little importance to this phase of life in which reproductive capacity ceases.

Women's bodies are not and never have been machines. Our ovaries do not fail, but become quiescent, mellow and tranquil. After seasons of rhythmical churning of hormones, at the epicentre of storms that ebb and flow through the pre-menopausal body, the ovaries enter their stage of delightfully calm and mature repose.

But a woman is not her ovaries, nor is she reducible to her body and its changes. Menopause is the cessation of menstruation. It occurs on a single day marked by the last menstrual bleed. Climacteric is the process of transformation that takes a woman through this exciting, at times turbulent, even chaotic period, to a renewed and refreshed state of being.

In this new phase, woman is PROductive rather than RE-productive, she can focus on caring for her community, developing her creativity and above all transferring her knowledge, experience and wisdom to the world. Instead of being distracted by pregnancies (or not) and the exigencies of a body perpetually in cycle, the mature woman can focus on the needs of the world and her role within it.

It is the mature female vision that has always helped human beings avoid their own self-imposed disasters. It is a vision that feeds on relationships and patterns, on intuition, contexts and their meanings.

Isn't that what being a woman was always about - before they changed the story?


"The Power of a Story" Published March 8th 2012, International Women's Day.


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