Rewriting the story

Our spirit or soul is like a book upon which we write the story of our life;  a narrative that explains our attitudes and beliefs, accounts for our actions and may mitigate  our misdemeanours.  It’s our personal identity, how we see ourselves. It doesn’t have to be based on what actually happened, more on our interpretation of what has happened in the light of our previous experience – our version of the truth.  It doesn’t even have to be happy story.  Some desperate souls are tortured daily by tales of self doubt, condemned by harsh accounts of guilt and shame. But for the rest us, who survive the life’s vicissitudes and live on into old age in relative peace, it is a story that comforts and contains us in hope.  There’s something almost religious about this, our narrative is remarkably like the ancient cultural concept of a forgiving God; a projection or our own needs and aspirations; the temple we build in our own minds.  We don’t have to deliberately deceive ourselves; that way leads to madness. But if we are to live out the rest of our lives in peace, we do need to create a credible version that supports and contains us.     

This is a magic book; the story is not carved on tablets of stone or even inscribed in ink on vellum, it is scrawled on shifting sand and the tide keeps coming in and erasing bits so it has to be written again.  It’s like a personal website, that is constantly updated.   Throughout life, we update our internal website, we adjust the emphasis, create new links, introduce new characters, rewrite the plot.   

Consider those stories we told ourselves years ago in those early drafts; what we were going to do, the adventures we would have, the success we would achieve, the celebrity, the power, the glory, how we would fall in love and live happily ever after, have children who would make us proud. Those exaggerated tales of ‘derring do’ encouraged us to take the more awesome risks and made all the striving worthwhile.  We were indestructible then; the plots we devised then were so adventurous and always worked; triumph over adversity, good vanquishing evil, falling in love and despite difficulties and separation, being together at last.  They were tales of hope, life and death, but life always won; the hero would be back next week to survive another adventure. 

But for most of us, life does not turn out to be an adventure story, neither is it always happy or successful. Your career is not as exciting as you thought it would be.  The endless meetings are boring; you lose interest and lose out on the expected promotion.  The woman you fell in love with, beautiful, charismatic and kind, the embodiment of all your dreams, now leaves dirty underwear around, makes smells in the bathroom and can be totally unreasonable. Your son, the apple of your eye, fails his exams, cannot get work, and takes occasional drugs. The trick is to live with the disappointment. She is human just like you, part of you and you are attached; you love her with all her minor irritations. The narrative has to change to a story that is less exciting, more to do with  overcoming adversity, building a steady career, providing a stable home, finding joy and happiness within the family, rearing confident and independent children.  Respect, peace and satisfaction are the new themes.     

But consider another scenario. You discover that the one you would love forever has deceived you; it takes a lot of maturity and wisdom to adapt the story and forgive.  More often than not, those chapters have to be crossed out with a red pen and redrafted.  The romance is turned into a triumph of good over evil. You eliminate a major character to protect yourself.  The one you once loved to distraction, you must now hate to destruction.   

Things rarely work out the way we thought they would and we have to adapt our story many times.  We make compromises, explain, justify, excuse and forgive. As our mountain building is eroded by time, our story changes to one that is more complex, more understanding, more modulated and forgiving, more human.  The goals we set ourselves are less thrilling, our hopes less ambitious. Experience and the mellowness of middle age softens us in reflection. And if we are to live out our life in peace and hope,  this gives us the wisdom to accept and forgive. 

Not everybody is like that. Some feel so threatened and insecure, they cannot integrate experience. They cling on to the good things and attempt to eliminate the bad. They are suggestible and so impetuous. ‘Our house is a dream. A holiday in the Seychelles will be magic.  This will be the happiest Christmas ever.  I think I am falling in love all over again.’ They inhabit a polarized story; the bright narrative is exhibited for all to admire, but dark gothic tales lurk in the shades, ready to be projected out, condemning any deserving object that happens to pass though their triumphant progression; mother, difficult siblings, a previous lover, the estranged husband, erstwhile friends, the boss, the government – always the government. And the story they tell, has to be defended to the last rampart and ditch.  Experience, the way they have to see things, is merely adapted to consolidate their position.  They are into denial and condemnation. ‘Oh, he can be so plausible and caring, but it’s just a trick to get round me.’  For some tormented souls, everything and everybody is a threat and they are the victim.  Films, plays, books, television illustrate this black and white world.  It is exciting; it creates drama. 

People who have never built up a strong narrative by which to lives their lives; those with what we call a fragile identity can all too easily come to live somebody else’s story.  This is the power of the media, the church.  It traditional cultures, it may be illustrated by the evil eye or pointing the bone.  How many of us start off in life, like Philip Larkin, living out our parents ambitions and grievances?  It is to be hoped we don’t end in the same way, but life does have a habit of consolidating the narrative that they gave us.    

Just we need our personal narrative to sustain us, so society needs its collective mythology to hold it together. Couples, families, fraternities, tribes, nations gain comfort and identity from a shared mythology.  Cultures throughout history, have been defined by their stories; the Australian aborigines had their songlines, the Norse, their sagas,  the Greeks, their myths, the Hindus, the adventures of their family of Gods.  History itself is made up of stories.  Or as Alan Bennett wrote, ‘It’s just one bloody thing after another.’ 

We have to believe in something. Otherwise we are lost.  In the past, this took the form of religious faith.  God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world!  Jesus loves us!  Allah be praised!  Now the predominant collective mythologies tend to be political doctrines, social advice, scientific evidence and the opinions of media pundits, but they’re all stories. We comfort ourselves with our imaginings and delusions.   

Our story is the cognitive backbone of our lives.  It imparts meaning and convinces us that things are known – we are known. We are ‘the rational species’.  At least that’s the story we tell ourselves!  We need to explain. As Descartes indicated; it’s the engine of our existence. The unknown is a vacuum that demands to be filled.  If life becomes meaningless, we lose the will to live. It’s not so much the reality that makes us feel good or bad, it’s the story we make up about it.  There’s nothing so good or bad as thinking makes it so.   

Our stories can be life enhancing, but they can also so easily leading to torment, melancholy and madness.  The voyage of life is never without its storms and dangers. . We suffer loss, dreadful loss, and can wander for years in a wilderness without plot or purpose.  We don’t always behave well, but instead of forgiving ourselves and letting go, we refuse to rescue ourselves from a punitive narrative and like mediaeval penitents, flagellate our souls with loathing and depression. Grief is a process of retelling the story, but when the reality of what has happened seems so dreadful and the story we try to tell  ourselves cannot console us, then we get anxious and make seek refuge in a world of make believe and fiction. But sometimes the memory is so traumatic that it cannot be processed by story telling; it short circuits the narrator and is relived endlessly taking control of the individual. Those who are mentally ill, suffer from reminiscences.  

Healing is not just about bringing about some structural or biochemical change in the body;  it treats mind, body and meaning (spirit or soul) as one. Healers are story tellers.   From the shamans of Siberia, the Amerindian medicine men and the sangoma of Southern Africa to the exponents of state sponsored evidence based medicine; they all try to replace the embodied tale of woe with an enlivening message of hope. 

Psychotherapy is a subtle form of healing.  For me, it is about understanding the person’s narrative, where it has emerged from, what it represents, how it may limit and entrap and then helping them adjust it to one that gets them out of their prison into a form of reality that is happy and healthy.  But this is a subjective reality,  it is about working with the patients truth.  Different people experiencing the same event will have different truths; everything is filtered through an individual’s own life experience, and changes with time and what happens next.

I try to get at the basic theme of a person’s narrative, the story that defines them and lasts through life, and forms what we call their unique identity,  because that theme will influence through what analysts call transference, every aspect of their attitudes and behaviour.   Every situation can be a suitable screen, every person a suitable vehicle for projection.  I need to know what presses their buttons and why.  I need to know what memories and meanings lies hidden away in the shadows and gullies of their shame and guilt. I need to understand the dark underbelly of their unconscious.  Only then can I help to ease their sentence and rediscover a narrative that is more life enhancing.  To me this combines essential elements of analytic exploration within a framework that attempts to change a person’s narrative perspective.  This does not have a particular affiliation with regard to doctrine, but is more a blending of the most useful aspects of psychoanalytical and cognitive behavioural aspects of therapy within a context that encourages sufficient confidence to explore a different attitude.     

We are a cognitive species; we try to make sense of what happens, learn from our experience. The way we think affects who we are.  So when our thoughts, the stories we tell ourselves, are making us unhappy or ill, then peace can only be obtained by engaging with darker, hidden, human aspects of our common narratives, the things we are ashamed of, and seek to integrate them into a story that is honest to ourselves.