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How personal stories make us better people and the world a better place
A growing body of research suggests that hearing others' stories can increase empathy and understanding, influence our judgments and opinions and inspire us to action. Stories help us broaden our perspective on the world. - photo by Allison Pond
Sometimes well-meaning efforts to help can have the opposite effect.

I listened recently to a number of veterans describe their experiences with moral injury a condition related to PTSD that occurs when a person witnesses or participates in something that goes against their personal values. They were all attending a session of the Parliament of World's Religions this fall, and had served in World War II, Vietnam, the Korean War or the recent Middle East wars.

In voices cracking with emotion, some of these veterans described keeping feelings inside because they didnt want to burden or disappoint their families and friends. Others shared their pain at being misunderstood or mislabeled.

As I dug deeper into the issue, I learned that churches in particular are in an ideal position to help veterans process the moral violations theyve witnessed, but people of faith can sometimes be so full of answers or put off by the anger some veterans feel that they end up alienating them instead. After nearly every interview for that story, I hung up the phone and paused for a moment with tears in my eyes, my heart cracked open in a new way, filled with respect for the invisible burdens others carry and a desire to be more present with others in their suffering.

Across other areas we cover from homelessness and prison reform to international aid and a host of other issues there are countless examples of well-meaning but ineffective solutions that waste resources and have unintended consequences.

In the case of veterans with moral injury, experts say the solution is as simple as having a safe place to tell their story over and over, allowing them to try on different points of view and gain perspective on their trauma. Just one person willing to simply listen without judging or trying to fix the person or the situation can make a difference.

Veterans arent the only ones who need someone to listen. All humans construct narratives of their lives its the brains way of making sense of the world and creating meaning. And a growing body of research suggests that hearing stories can increase empathy and understanding, influence our judgments and opinions and inspire us to action. Stories broaden our perspective, taking us behind the scenes and into lives we otherwise wouldn't observe.

This year on the causes beat, we told the stories of girls in India and Mexico fighting for the chance to decide their own futures; of a prisoner begging for the chance to make a fresh start; of mothers demanding change in their communities.

People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell, said Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.

That is whats most rewarding for me about journalism, whether as a writer, an editor or a reader: the chance to bear witness to another human experience, to break through the statistics to the faces behind the numbers and learn how to meet real needs real people with real solutions.
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