Do we write our own stories, or are do they just happen to us? Are we relegated to only being storytellers, or do we participate in the making of the story?
Arthur Frank, in his book, Letting Stories Breathe, asks “how much room does the story grant its characters for multiple, conflicting, and changing expressions of their character?” His implication, at least in part, I suspect, is that stories have lives of their own, separate from the teller and fully in charge of things. He continues “Stories seem fully capable of doing either kind of work: identifying people as fixed to a single motivation line that defines their character, or alternatively, showing the complexity and fluidity of people’s motives.” I like the idea of stories being many things, and changeable, but would advocate for the teller of the story as also the creator (or at least co-creator) of the story, and not merely the teller of story. The richness of the individual life, the sheer volume of a person’s experiences make it impossible to include them all in a single story, but it is in the detailed telling of stories that a person can discover forgotten moments or experiences that can be woven into a story, changing its meaning.
When problem stories have been around for a long time, they can become very influential, even convincing us that they represent who we are as human beings. In those moments, throwing in the towel can seem to be the only option. Hopelessness can take over, paralyzing us from moving forward. In fact, people are never the problem, the problem is the problem. The stories of our lives are a community effort in every case. There are no exceptions. Our sense of self, how we see ourselves in the world is constructed by the culture in which we live, and culture is deeply implicated in the problems people face.
“What is it about stories—what are their particularities—that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose.”
Arthur W. Frank, from his book, letting stories breathe: a socio-narratology.
Is there always a right and wrong, or is there room for uncertainty? In my experience, I’ve found that clear solutions are not so easy to come by. Adopting a position of not knowing can increase our field of view, providing more possibilities.
When I consult with people in a therapeutic environment, I am always on the lookout for what narrative therapist’s refer to as “the absent yet implicit.” For example, if someone voices acute anxiety or fear, it may also imply a deeply held value about life–possibly opening space and a new direction for the conversation.