My mother's vase...and the power of storytelling
By Aileen Quealy.
memento mori: an object kept as a reminder of the inevitability of death.
When my mother died I was distraught. The phone call to tell me, the funeral planning, writing the eulogy, choosing the music, was all extremely distressing. But clearing out my parent’s house (my father having passed away some years earlier) was indescribably awful. The feelings of sorrow, remorse, guilt and loss was simply overwhelming.
It was with a sickening sense of the sheer futility of existence that my sister and I picked through a lifetime’s worth of belongings, taking the majority to the local dump. However, as the house emptied I became fixated on finding a handful ornaments that I could see in my minds-eye as occupying certain positions on the mantelpiece, but were no longer there.
I searched, almost with a sense of panic, that if I couldn’t find them, perhaps that part of my life had never really existed. No evidence to prove it had happened, or I had been there. When I eventually found many of them in a box put to one side for charity, I felt such relief at having something tangible to help me make sense of my feelings.
When I eventually left the house for the final time, the house that had been my home from birth, with a car full of long forgotten-about possessions and childhood memories, I cried uncontrollably for the whole four hour journey back to my home, full of my rubbish and useless belongings.
One of the things I salvaged was a rather ugly, thick, vintage glass vase. It probably wasn’t worth a lot but it was something that had always been there and if friends visited and brought her flowers, my mother would put them in this vase.
When I recently broke my mother’s vase – a friend visited me with flowers and I likewise went to put them in the vase – I wasn’t just distraught, or overwhelmed by feelings of loss and remorse. I was utterly inconsolable.
In the moment that I turned around and accidentally knocked it off the kitchen counter with my elbow, realising what I had done, watching it fall towards the quarry tiles that I knew would smash it to smithereens, before it even hit the floor I knew. I knew in that nano-second, with greater clarity than I had ever known before, the finality of death.
That we all die. I am going to die. I am getting older with every breath I breathe and that I would never, ever be the same again as in that moment.
resonance: the power to evoke enduring images, memories, and emotions
There is a great scene in ‘Kill Bill II’ – the sandwich scene – when Bill describes how his daughter kills Emilio, her pet goldfish which perfectly articulates what I felt in that moment.
Bill: ‘The second she lifted up her foot and saw Emilio not flapping she knew what she had done. Is that not the perfect visual image of life and death? A fish flapping on the carpet and a fish not flapping on the carpet.’
After the incident with the vase I was reminded of this scene and I thought about why it resonated so powerfully with me now.
The power of a story
Since the earliest daubing of paintings on cave walls, storytelling has been a fundamental method of communication for humans. But, why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other, have such a profound impact on our learning? It’s partly because our brains are simply wired that way, but also a story is essentially a connection of cause and effect which is how we think and act in our daily lives.
Psychology of storytelling
Research has found storytelling to be the most effective way to engage an audience and psychological studies have repeatedly shown that attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. They show that if we share a story people are more likely to:
Remember the message
Be personally connected to it
Be persuaded by it
So, stories have greater potential to persuade and change how we act in life because they are easier to understand and relate to. They resonate.
The CX team at RPMI have been experimenting using the power of storytelling to communicate messages to pension scheme members more effectively. If you’re interested, here’s one we created to encourage members to think about what they want in retirement and whether they’re saving enough. We’d love to know what you think!
And, if you haven’t seen the Kill Bill films, they are (in my opinion) Tarantino’s finest hour. Watch the sandwich scene here.