Be brave, tell your story

I could start with Christmas or Hanukkah since we are in the season, but I'll start instead with a conversation on a back porch at a housewarming party two months ago.

"Stephanie does a fabulous SoulCollage workshop," said my friend, Lucy, by way of introduction to the mistress of the house, whom I had met just once or twice.

Lucy went on to say a SoulCollage was a piece of art you did as a visual projection of yourself. I am not artistic (or remotely hipster), but something stirred in me.

I gave Stephanie my contact and when she e-mailed me about her workshop (she called it a "playshop") a month later, I told her I would come.

I think it's because I have a big birthday coming up early next year that I didn't run from something with a name like SoulCollage.

I felt like I needed to make sense of how I had got here and what might come next. It even seemed strangely appealing, the prospect of possibly learning a new way to access one's inner life.

Also, someone close to me had been going through a hard time, with her marriage breaking up and her children not doing well in school. It had led her to question her life choices as it had been a blow to find herself, late in life, at a crossroads she had never envisaged.

I thought I might try the class and if it was any good, recommend it to her.

So on a balmy day in an unseasonably warm winter, five women gathered at Stephanie's house for an introduction to SoulCollage.

Stephanie, a licensed therapist and artist, had become seriously interested in the process when she was diagnosed with cancer some 12 years ago and is now a trained facilitator.

In SoulCollage, you work on 4x6 cards one at a time using images to make collage pieces that reflect aspects of yourself. You are not supposed to over-think it but allow it to be an intuitive process of self- exploration and discovery.

When you have accumulated a sizeable deck, you can use the cards as an oracle or a visual journal.

It was a little nerve-racking to have to open up to strangers. I also found it tempting to critique my collage and compare it with others, to see whose was better. A case of my left brain acting out, I suppose.

But without expecting much from it, I was surprised at the end of the day to find I had learnt something about myself. If I hadn't given it a chance, I might never had uncorked the epiphany awaiting inside.

I see SoulCollage, along with other techniques such as therapeutic writing and guided autobiography, as ways of telling the stories of your life which can help you work through emotional issues, gain the insights you might be seeking, and understanding about yourself.

Some of the writing therapies are used in Singapore as counselling tools, for instance, at the Institute of Mental Health.

Research is beginning to show that if people write about events they have managed to get some distance from - not something new and raw but perhaps a past trauma - they receive both psychological and physiological benefits.

It is not simply writing to vent one's emotions, which apparently does little good. It is the interpretation of the past trauma - the story - that is beneficial.

Now we are in the season of Christmas and Hanukkah, two holidays celebrated close to each other that have their origins in stories.

We are familiar with the Christmas tale of Jesus, born among farm animals because there was no room at the inn and no one who recognised who he was.

In the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, a miracle keeps the altar fire burning in the temple in Jerusalem for eight days, though there is oil enough for only one.

From what I can gather, the fire was lit as a consecration by a band of faithful Jews, who refused to be assimilated by the Syrian-Greek empire that ruled them more than 2,000 years ago. They defeated a much bigger army and took back the temple, which they rededicated to their God.

Today, many Jews in the United States mark the eight-day festival by lighting the menorah, a candelabra with seven branches, after nightfall. They also eat fried foods such as latkes, a potato pancake, to commemorate the miracle of the oil.

Two weeks ago, a group of people - American, Singaporean, and Karen and Chin refugees from Myanmar - gathered at the home of our Jewish friends for a Hanukkah celebration. While the children lit the candles, we listened to our hostess tell of how this holiday was, among other things, a celebration of religious freedom, the right to practise one's faith without persecution or suspicion.

It was a timely reminder, given how a presidential hopeful had just mooted the idea of banning Muslims from the country. It was also poignant, as there were among us refugees who had fled their homes precisely because they were not allowed to live as they chose.

Her message exhorting us to peace was drawn from a tale told time and again. Yet it still made us think and drew us together.

Since the dawn of humankind, stories have been the agent through which wisdom and knowledge have been passed down to generations. They hold the power to inspire change and move to action, in ways that mere platitudes cannot. The best stories don't just tell us how to live, they show us how.

Most of us think we don't have lives that are anywhere as interesting as to deserve a story. But the secret behind a good story is not always in the material, but in the telling of it.

It is a way of seeing things. I am not sure if I will ever get into the habit of making card collages, but you never know. It takes time and practice to become a proficient storyteller, even of your own life. And if you don't tell your story, who will?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Be brave, tell your story'. Print Edition | Subscribe