Chené Swart specialises in narrative work and is the author of the book “Re-authoring the World: The Narrative Lens and Practices for organisations, communities and individuals”. Chené inspires people all over the world through re-authoring ideas and conversations. In Flanders, she has worked together with Tourism flanders and the Holiday Participation Center.
When people in the helping profession/care workers offer space to talk about holiday experiences, they have a chance to integrate their hopes, experiences and discoveries into their personal and family life line. This is what Dan Benn, of the University of Surrey told us recently in a conversation with us. This is an interesting idea, that keeps us busy. We spoke about this idea to Chené Swart, a South African who specialises in narrative work.
“People are story-makers”, says Chené. “When we invite each other to tell our stories, we make our lives extraordinary again”. And that goes a long way, in these times when ordinary people barely dare seeing their lives as being extraordinary.
A: ‘How was your holiday?’
B: ‘Too short. But still nice.’
A: ‘Where have you been to?’
B: ‘The seaside, same as every year.’
A: ‘Ah, yes. When I was a child we used to go the seaside too.’
It was just a vacation, nothing special. We all know these kinds of conversations so well. The holiday conversation sputters to an end and we move on to the agenda items of the day.
Our very ordinary lives…
People compare their lives to the stories the media feed them. Compared to the light of goodness of Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, the glamour of celebrities or the performance of top athletes, our lives seem very mundane. “Oh, well, it is what it is”, we say with a shrug, "just be normal, that's enough."
We say exactly the same when it comes to our holidays. We had a good time, but, well, life quickly falls back into the familiar rhythm. We barely look back. We might talk about our holidays a little, in general terms, without taking the time to remember and relive these experiences. Chené Swart: “And that is a pity, because through these memories, sharing and reflection, we give our experiences a valuable place in our life story”.
Everyone is a life artist
Yet every human being lives a unique life. Each and every one of us is busy, day in and day out, to develop practices in the art of life. Except these practices are barely told, let alone written down. Experiences come and go. Memories get filed as long gone. This changes however, when people are enabled to recount their experiences and someone wants to listen and really understand.
Asking questions and listening is an invitation for people to meaningfully weave past moments into their lives Chené Swart
While telling their stories, people rediscover the beauty of the moments and the impact and influence they have had on their lives. And telling a story to someone who is really listening makes you feel heard and seen, which is so valuable. Being seen by someone else allows you to see yourself anew.
Relating experiences in the meticulous details of smells and sights is a way of reliving them. By going back to holiday memories, people can give those experiences a place in their lives. Telling it brings these experiences back. What we felt as something “strong”, or “important”, or “enjoyable” finds its way to the now. We (re-)discover what makes us strong, what we find important, or enjoyable. Thus, it becomes present knowledge, which we can weave into our lives right here and right now. Chené Swart calls it “embodied knowledge” which are discoveries that literally acquire a place in your body, allowing you to access them again.
Weaving threads into the tapestry of our lives
Dan Benn concluded in his research: “In-depth conversations before and after the holiday opens up the space to reflect on events, relationships and emotions. The holiday then moves ‘into’ people’s life line which is so much more than a brief escape from life’s day-to-day hardships”. Chené calls these reflections “golden threads”, which people can weave into their life tapestry by remembering and relating them through conversations.
Social workers and tour guides/holiday enablers can open up this meaningful process by asking good questions and listening attentively.
Please try this at home
We know this conversation all too well: “How was your holiday? – Good, thank you”… How can you create opportunities to weave a golden thread from holiday memories into people’s lives for the here and the now and also the future?
Ask people to remember moments from their holidays. Moments they cherish, when something started moving, moments they are thankful for. Don’t be surprised if people go quiet when they hear the questions. We are no longer used to people really wanting to know what we experienced and the value it has for us.
Give space, listen and ask questions out of genuine curiosity: Where were you, with whom, what could you hear, smell, taste, feel? Tell me about the nature, the water, the wind on your skin. Tell me about the beauty, about the friendship… When people start their storytelling, hesitantly at first, then enthusiastically, their holidays return like a window being opened, blowing the experience back as it appears once more in all its glory. A golden thread is being woven.
Use the same words people use and ask more questions out of genuine curiosity: Tell me about more moments like these. What surprised you most? What left you speechless? Where in your body do/did you feel it? What do you feel right now, while you are telling it?
And weave those memories into your current life: “What is different today than before your holiday? What would you have put in a box and brought back with you from the holiday? Which insights or decisions sprouted during your holiday? Which title would you give to this holiday story? In which way did this holiday empower you in your day-to-day life?
The experience of being a human being with dignity
Questions about nature, smells, colours, beauty bring the memory of there-and-then back to the here-and-now. Storytellers can again feel and experience their holidays. Storytelling dusts off the memories. It integrates the vacation experience into your life. Every question about the meaning of holidays for our lives in the here and now weaves a golden thread into people’s life story. Life feels enriched, more extraordinary, worth telling.
That is meaningful too, because when someone listens, asks and wants to understand, human beings feel they are being seen as someone with a real story. A person with dignity, with fascinating experiences. And then, everything changes and becomes a little different.