Forging Wholeness from Crisis through Story
Hurricanes come in many forms. A breast cancer patient whose sexuality was attached to her beautiful face and figure. A newly single woman broken free from her umpteenth relationship with an unavailable man. A talented writer, shamed by his creativity as a child, anguished in his job as an arts non-profit administrator. A single mother tries to build a business while caring for her infant; another is torn between keeping her life going in one city while caring for an elderly parent in another.
What these people need is more than "reinvention." They need rebirth. Almost every counseling client who comes to me, no matter what their particular issue, has a similar need: they want, or are being forced by life, to change their deepest concept about who they are and what life holds for them. Change not just their beliefs and attitudes, but their assumptions about life, patterns of thought and behavior, habitual relationships, and their core identity -- to create a new story. Not so easy. No longer the person they were but not yet the person they will be, they must cross that painful threshold between worlds and lives, and endure the conflicts, grief, confusion, and fear at being unmoored in the void.
Increasingly, mainstream psychologists understand wellness not as "happiness" or conformity with an established norm, but as the ability to tell a coherent narrative about one's life. Telling your story as the storyteller and witness, not only as the victim, can help you integrate negative experience, find the ways you survived and prevailed, and discover more about what happened, who you were, and who you became.
As Hurricane Irene raged outside my windows, I read Pema Chodron's book, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness. She writes, "There's a common misunderstanding among all humans who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just get comfortable. A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach is to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet."
In other words, no chaos; no creation. In my September newsletter, I offer a Sufi tale, "Fatima the Spinner and the Tent," which is the long and arduous journey to ultimate happiness of a woman whose life is continually thrown off course by shipwrecks, kidnappings, every possible kind of disaster and loss. I also offer suggested narrative and other expressive exercises for working with this story. In addition, I feature an article on Qigong -- the ancient practice of dance stories that is the basis of Chinese healing and martial arts -- and that can help to relieve the stress of change and loss that manifests in bodily symptoms.
Creating Coherence in Modern Life Through the Lens of Ancient Myth
In providing a container for us to work out our conflicts, release our fears, express our best and worst selves and the best and worst of our loved ones in metaphor, story assures us that we can find a path to our inner, most essential life and return refreshed, re-formed, to reality. We won't get lost because story structure doesn't get lost: it takes us into the depths of the forbidden forest or enables us to look at the ancient drawings on the walls of the deepest cave and returns us safely home again. Through the fantasy of story we gain an intimacy with inner life that reality blocks and emerge more able to handle reality as a result.
Here's a story lens for taking a fresh and redemptive look at the sometimes harsh journey we must take in life:
1. Story has a beginning -- a “Once Upon a Time” that sets the scene, but more importantly, opens the door to an adventure.
What was your "normal"? What was life like "before"? Think in terms of story elements: environment and atmosphere, characters, situations, conflicts, desires.
2. A misfortune or surprising event throws everything into confusion and sets people wandering around lost and in need of help.
These big shatterings can be happy too! Falling in love, winning a prize, getting a coveted job, publishing a book. What was the effect on you and your world?
3. A character steps up to the task of solving the problem.
What action did you or another take to set things right or to follow up on a stroke of good luck?
4. Another character, group, situation or natural obstacle that opposes the new resolution, that wants to keep things the way they are for their own interests.
Who or what opposed you? An obstacle can be an illness, a habit, addiction, cultural standard, or a corrupt system, just as it can be a person.
5. A journey or a task the main character undertakes to solve the problem. Usually it takes three attempts. The first two fail, but with each failure the character grows in strength, wit, tenacity, and intelligence.
This is the long transformational struggle to fix the problem, oneself, become a dancer, or write the book. What was the time frame of your struggle. Where were the peaks and valleys, the places of breakthrough and growth? In story and life, there's often a point of surrender. Nothing has worked. This is when we finally become receptive to the wise help that's likely been there all along, but that we were unable to see through the veil of will. Did you have such a moment? Are you now experiencing surrender? Who or what did you turn to?
6. The climax – where the main character defeats the enemy and claims the grail, medicine, greater knowledge that doesn’t just fix but transforms the situation.
What was the inner grail -- the gift of this experience? How did you change and grow as a person? What was the outer grail?
7. The hero/heroine returns with the grail along an equally arduous road, and if they succeed in being accepted (not a given, part of the heroic journey) end this adventure with a celebration in which healing is restored to the kingdom and the land and its creatures begin to thrive once again.
Ultimately, the gifts we gain are not ours to keep. We're meant to share the wisdom or power gained on the hero's or heroine's journey with our families, communities, and world at large. Who and how can you now serve?
We unconsciously create outer lives that reflect the inner stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we can expect. These stories were planted within us as children and early experience. When life is shaken out and we're left with the essentials, we learn what we really value and who we really are. In that sense, chaos is one face of an angel, the frightening one. In the darkest times, ask whatever higher power you believe in for help. You've seen the dark face of the angel, now ask to be shown the light.
by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.