November 1st, 2010

Living by stories

When I decided to spend part of a recent Sunday afternoon at a reading by Robert Coles in a bookstore in a nearby town, I knew I was in for a pleasant drive through the fall countryside and an hour or so of interesting observations by a man whose ideas on life and literature have inspired me throughout my professional career. Interesting observations and a pleasant drive would have been more than enough to make my day but the highlight of the afternoon was something for which I am still searching for the words to describe. It had to do with the humility and straightforwardness of this author of 70 books and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom as he told the story of how he had come to be with us in this particular place on this sunny autumn day.

Dr. Coles echoed Robert Frost’s description of how “way leads on to way” and how the choices we are given in life are often determined by forces beyond our control. So it was for him and he was not too proud to tell us. And in his telling, we were listening to a story, just as we do when we read literature, give our attention to our patients, or reflect on our own lives.

Dr. Coles was here to talk about his new book, “Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection,” based on his long running Literature of Social Reflection course at Harvard. He told the audience that we live by stories and reminded us that some of our best storytellers, among them George Orwell, William Carlos Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, felt an obligation to tell the human story in all of its many forms to help us see our place in the grand epic. When Charles Dickens describes the life of an orphan like Pip in “Great Expectations,” he allows the reader to enter into that life and, by so doing, to understand the hardships that so many children experienced in nineteenth century England. This understanding that writers and psychotherapists try to promote is not a mere exercise of the head, although that is important, but a key to a language of the heart that we call empathy. If we take what the great storytellers tell us to heart, we cannot help thinking about the stories we hear in our work as therapists.

Blessed with sight, I don’t know what it is to be blind, but I will never forget the blind man who asked me to close my eyes while he held on to my guiding arm. Now there was a lesson in empathy. He also had something to say about trust when he joined me in a game of guessing the temperature and then checking the thermometer in front of us to determine the winner of our little contest.

I cannot think of life as story without remembering a man in mismatched clothes who was hurt deeply by a mother’s unkind warning about him to her child in a restaurant. We could all tell stories of kings and queens, winners of Nobel prizes, masters of the universe or ordinary folks who suddenly find themselves able to broadcast their thoughts or receive the thoughts of others and we know that would be only half the tale. The other half would tell of sickness, loss, injury and unfulfilled ambitions. And, because we are psychologists, we would make the obvious connections.

Then there are the stories of new beginnings reminding us that life is filled with second chances, at its best, many times over. Telling and listening to these tales might lead us to believe anew that fractured relationships can heal, friendships can be formed, muddled thoughts can become sharp and clear, and any of us can string together enough good days to make good years and a good life. We might even see how we can help others and ourselves to make these things happen and know again why we are so fortunate to do the work of psychology.

Experience teaches us that anything can happen but we like to believe that, however improbable, our anythings will be favorable outcomes and happy endings. Yet those of us who live by stories know that life is more complicated. Even the most surprising and miraculous turns of plot do not guarantee a happy ending, just as the grimmest of tales are not without moments of grace. To quote Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

So here we are, taking truth as we find it in the complex stories we hear from our patients, in literature that wise teachers like Dr. Coles guide us to read and in the twists and turns of our own lives as we muddle through the best we can. Before leaving the bookstore, I told Dr. Coles how much I have appreciated his writing through the years, especially his books about stories. “They’re all about stories,” he replied. “Everything is about stories,” we both said almost in unison as we shared a knowing smile.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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