Stories: Tools for Coping

Rose Owens


The gift of a story is one way to share tools that may help individuals cope with their emotions.  These emotions sometimes seem to overwhelm us as we are confronted by death, divorce, anger, abuse, violence, teasing.  Within any environment are individuals who already need these tools and individuals who may need them at some time in the future.  A tool that is never given can  never be used.  We all are affected by the emotional forces that surround us—we need to be given tools to cope with those forces.


It was three weeks before Christmas.  The mother of two young boys had committed suicide.   The day before the funeral I was invited to tell stories to the younger boy and his classmates.  What stories would I tell?


            The Littleton massacre had been splashed across the media for days.  My middle school students had watched it on TV, read the newspaper reports and discussed it with friends, teachers and counselors.  My students felt vulnerable.  What stories should I tell?


            I had been asked to substitute in a 2nd grade class for emotionally disturbed students.  They had experienced much frustration and teasing in their short lives.  They were struggling to cope.    What stories did these children need?


            One story is not a miracle drug to magically resolve a crisis.  A storyteller is not a healer with miracles in a magic bag.   The storyteller is an individual who has a story to share.  This story may have been selected carefully because it has wisdom imbedded in it; however, the role of the storyteller is not to provide therapy or moralize.  The storyteller's role is to simply offer the gift, allowing  the listeners to participate in the power of the story and choose what they will receive and internalize.


            The process of selecting stories with embedded “inner wisdom”—the stories that will provide inner tools for coping is not a simple process.  It involves reading and telling many different stories.  Myths and traditional folktales are good sources for stories with this inner wisdom because they have powerful metaphors which allow each listener to take from the story the message his heart needs to hear.   


 “Ma Ling and the Magic Brush” (a folk tale from China) is an example of a story with hidden wisdom.  While I can find many pieces of hidden wisdom, they are not necessarily the same bits of wisdom that others may find.   The fact that one story can convey so many different messages contributes greatly to the power of storytelling.  This partial list  is given as a sample of the kinds of hidden wisdom that may be found in this story.

·         Believe in yourself. 

·         Don’t allow others to limit your choices. 

·         When one plan doesn’t work, try another plan.

·         How hard you are willing to work is more important than how much money or influence you have. 

·         Doing the best you can with what you have brings rewards. 

·         We should help others.

·         Keep your promises even when it is difficult. 

·         Wealth and power does not guarantee happiness.


The storyteller’s role is to offer the gift of story—not explain what the story means.  Trying to impart the same bits of wisdom that are embedded in a story using a “lecture format” can be  like turning off a light switch.  I have seen and felt the wall go up between my middle school students (12-15 year olds) and myself when I attempted to discuss a sensitive issue.  But when I tell them a story, I feel them relax and settle into the story.  There is no stress—no expectations.  Each listener is free to take the piece of wisdom that  speaks” to his personal need or to simply enjoy the story.   Stories with “inner wisdom” should help the listener conclude that people can figure out how to make their lives better.   People (both storytellers and listeners)  have a tendency to choose the stories that speak to experiences they have had and are trying to work out or world experiences they need to understand. 


My middle school students were trying to make sense of the Littleton High School massacre.  In spite of our discussions, I knew some students  still felt vulnerable.  I chose three stories with hidden wisdom that I felt might offer them the opportunity to internalize the message they needed or to allow them to discuss issues if they wished. 


I brought in a bundle of sticks and allowed the students to act out a portion of  The Bundle of Sticks.”   Through the story, I offered the hidden wisdom.   People need to stick together.  When we tear each other down, we weaken our group.  We can accomplish more when we work together as a group .


The students listened intently as I told “The King’s Hawk,” the story of  a young ruler who impulsively kills his hawk.  He has rewarded his hawk’s loyalty with death, but it is too late.   What he has done in anger cannot be undone.  


In  The Story Spirits,” the story spirits plot revenge.  This story was given to open the possibility of discussing revenge.  Is revenge justified?  Is revenge is an acceptable solution if a wrong has been committed? 


Although I offered the opportunity for discussion after each story, on this day my middle school students chose to simply listen.  I don’t know if any hidden wisdom was internalized on that day.  My role was simply to offer the gift of story.


            The process of growing up can be a complex process.  Children  need to learn how to handle anger—both their own and the anger of others.   When I had the opportunity to tell a story to a 2nd grade class for emotionally disturbed children, I chose to tell the story of Mucky Moose who demonstrates an inner strength that allows him to ignore the teasing of others.  I did not need to moralize or “tell” these students how they should act if someone teases them.  They were already dealing with these issues on a daily basis.  But when I simply told the story of Mucky Moose, these young listeners were able to  relate to Mucky Moose and how he controlled anger.   The gift of a story may allow listeners to assimilate models and ideas they need in their own lives.


                When a storyteller tells a story, the audience is composed of many individuals, each one accepting the story as a gift to him, taking from it the wisdom or message that he needs.  Perhaps what he needs is simply relief from his own problems—a few moments of forgetting when he can escape into a magical land where anything can happen.  For instance, grief is a heavy burden and the weight of it can seem overwhelming.  Sometimes the grieving individual needs to escape, to leave the overwhelming here-and-now behind for a time in order to then return stronger and more able to carry the burden of grief. 


As Christmas approached, I was asked to tell stories  to an emotionally fragile classroom.  A student’s mother had committed suicide and the boy had found her body.  He had chosen  to attend school during the time between his mother’s death and her funeral.  Perhaps this was his way of reaching out for normalcy in his life.  My friend wanted this school day to be as interesting as possible. 


            What stories should I tell?  Christmas stories would seem to ignore the sadness of the occasion but to tell stories with death as a theme would not allow the children to escape for a while.  I chose to tell “Dragonfly's Tale,” an ancient Zuni story.  Two children were accidentally left behind in the village.  The boy created a creature out of cornhusks for little sister to take her mind off her hunger and to keep her from missing her mother so much.  I did not mention the death of their classmate's mother and yet through the story, messages were given that sometimes loved ones accidentally leave you behind.  The person left behind has choices.  Life goes on.  I am convinced that this was the right story for this group of listeners to hear at this time


            Every individual needs a set of tools to cope with crisis.  Sharing stories is one way to offer these tools.  But one storyteller telling one or two or three stories is not enough.  Both children and adult listeners need to hear many stories-- stories of magic, stories of accomplishment, stories with moral values, historical stories, personal stories . They need to hear the stories now—before there is a need for the inner tools that these stories may provide.  They need to hear many storytellers, many different stories, and the same stories over and over again.  Yes, one storyteller is not enough, but one storyteller is a beginning—one way to place tools for living into the hearts and memories of listeners!


Copyright 1999 Rose Owens


This is the text of the article as it was printed in Storytelling Magazine, July/August, 2000.  The Magic Brush is an example of a story that contains tools for coping.


“The Magic Brush”

retold by Rose Owens


In a faraway place and a faraway time there once lived a young boy named Ma Lien.  He suffered economic and emotional hardship.  He was discriminated against.  He had the courage to dream. Ma Lien’s dream became reality largely through his own efforts.  These words might also describe someone in the here and how.  This timeless quality in the story of “The Magic Brush” opens the possibility for Ma Lien to become a role model for listeners who need emotional survival skills.  “The Magic Brush” is a special story containing hidden wisdom.  And equally important, it can simply be enjoyed by both teller and listener.  






The Bundle of Sticks              (cooperation, unity)

            “The Bundle of Sticks” (Aesop), The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennett, ed., Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993. 


Dragonfly’s Tale         (consequences of choices, death, abandonment, grief and healing)

Dragonfly’s Tale, Kristina Rodanas, Clarion Books, New York, 1992.


The King’s Hawk        (anger, impulsiveness, consequences of choices)

 “The King and His Hawk,” retold by James Baldwin, The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennet, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993.


Mucky Moose             (teasing, bullying, consequences of impulsive behavior)

Mucky Moose, Jonathan Allen, Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 1990.


The Story Spirits         (revenge)

“The Story Spirits” (Korea), Apples from Heaven: Multicultural Folk Tales about Stories and Storytellers, Naomi Baltuck, Linnet Books, 1995.


Story Lady Home Page


Back to Articles