W all love stories. We live in them and through them. Being Robin Hood or the Sleeping Beauty or Heidi. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy a good radio play. It has better pictures, as somebody observed. Cinema is excellent-so long as I don’t know the story on which a film is based. Then I get cross because the director’s picture of a character is always at odds with mine!
In his book The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman wrote, “Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.” A true story was the means by which those in Sheol – (or its “Dark Materials” equivalent) — found their freedom. So many things and people shape the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Are we seen as clever? Or sexy? Or stupid? Are we a “Good” boy or girl? Being “Good” can be quite a curse. I’m never able to be “Bad”. Or my “Badness” is felt to be unspeakably awful and shameful. Thus creating a self censoring super ego that rarely gives me a minute’s peace. (The same is true of “Bad” people. Even terrorists go home at the end of day and play with their children!
Niall Williams writes, “We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or to keep alive those who only live now in the telling.” History of the Rain . We choose what stories to tell. When I was training to be a psychiatric nurse, I made a point of only telling funny anecdotes about my work. I rarely shared the darkness the so often haunts psychiatric patients. (Imagine spending all day, ever day with voices that only you can hear. Taking to you. Commenting on your actions. Telling you how worthless you are. Telling you to go and kill yourself. Or kill others. These are not the stories that are easily told. Or easily heard. There is a cost in hearing these stories.We might wonder, with Williams, who or what we are keeping alive here.)
So, stories. As a counsellor I spend much of my time hearing people’s stories. Frequently we start with a “What an awful person I am.” Over time it becomes possible to think about the origin of this story. “Well, my husband tells me I’m…” Or “My wife thinks I’m …” Then we can challenge some o these stories. I’ll sometimes ask something like “Well, are you lazy?”Or “Is it the case that you never help with the childcare?” Most times my patient reflects that,”No. That’s not entirely true.”
It takes courage to change our story. My story, after all, is Me. That’s who I am. Isn’t it? As part of my training as a counsellor, I had my own analysis.(There were so many stories to tell! But that, as they say, is another story!) My wife was terrified. Terrified the I’d uncover a different story about her. One that ended with my discovering that I didn’t love her. After 30 years of marriage it is apparent that there was no other story. I loved her then as I do now. And will continue to do because that’s my true story. Which sets me free. And that is one way of understanding my work as a counsellor.To help people tell their stories. To listen to the telling. And to reflect on my experience of that story. My patients are always free to do with my listening as they wish. That is my blessing and my curse as a listener.