Resilience and Story

Spring_StoriesLast evening I went for a walk along the lake. It was chilly and there had been snow earlier in the higher elevations. Still, a few people were out, some with their dogs. This morning dogs, and their people, were out in force. Spring must truly have arrived! (I just looked out the window and noticed a large raptor circling while being harassed by the inevitable smaller songbird.)

I’ve been noticing how human I am. Even though I am in my late sixties, spring brings out the younger man in me. As the weather warms I become more playful, get out and about more, and begin to notice other people. As a result, I am reminded that I am a primate, biologically hard-wired to be social. Dogs, while not primates, are similarly wired. They can tell when one enjoys their presence, and will often, with the permission of their owners, reach out to make contact. For us humans, to take a dog, or a baby, out for a walk is to invite social interaction with others.

The quality and extent of one’s social networks is a very good predictor of future health and wellbeing. These markers are also useful in predicting our response to illness and misfortune. Thus, one of the most insidious effects of trauma is social isolation. When the trauma occurs early in life, and especially if it continues over an extended period, the survivor may easily find herself or himself profoundly alone as a child, and later, an adult. This isolation is driven by fear, and, too often, intense self loathing.

In Native American cultures children were traditionally taught stories that modeled social engagement, connection, and resilience. The heroes and heroines of these stories utilized their connections to the spirit world, the Natural world, and the tribal community to remain resilient in the face of terrible suffering.  The stories were themselves embedded and anchored in small communities that tended to intervene on behalf of children who were in distress. Such stories surely aided children and adults when adversity entered their lives.

Sadly, the impacts of colonization, especially war, alcohol, and introduced diseases, fragmented both communities and their story sharing traditions. Forced assimilation and, crucially, the theft of children, and their subsequent forced attendance at boarding schools, further weakened the social and storied safety net. Although the boarding schools are, thankfully, in our past, their legacy, and may of the forces of colonialism, continue to influence the lives of Indian children, as evidenced by the tsunami of youth suicides in Indian country.

Traditionally, stories were owned by individuals, families, or tribes, and, to a considerable extent, this remains true. Ordinarily one asks the owner for permission to tell a story. That convention has largely been ignored by folklorists and others who have collected, and published, Indian stories. This has resulted in massive cultural theft, yet it has also given us a deep reservoir of traditional stories, many of which seek to remind the listener they posses rich inner resources and the capacity to be resilient. For those of us who have largely lost our Native heritage, these collections of stories are an enormously important resource.

There are similar resources in the European tradition, and I have, throughout my career, used stories from the Brothers Grimm in clinical settings. I have, in doing so, sought out the earliest available versions of these stories, versions rich and raw, and thoroughly human. Often, clients are surprised that narratives of such descriptive power could lie beneath stories made popular by Disney. Yet, these European folk stories almost always lack the sense of belonging and community so fundamental to their Indian relatives. I wonder whether the sheer destructive power of European history had already created cultures of relative isolation by the time the Grimms collected the stories.

I was taught early on that stories are powerful healers, and that sharing traditional stories offers to clients the possibility of a harbor, and safe anchorage, for their lives. I have come to believe that Narrative Therapy, while potent, is often insufficient, as it may fail, when used alone, to embed persons in the life affirming web of tradition and community. Repeatedly, I am reminded here is something profoundly healing about traditional stories, narratives that invite us to recognize our plight, no matter how harsh, as inherently human.

What stories have offered you solace and healing?

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23 thoughts on “Resilience and Story

  1. My dear friend and adopted grandmother Vi Hilbert said, “Our stories tell us who we are.” She felt that the stories need to be told, and if they were told with respect and the source was credited, she didn’t mind. She also acknowledged that many people did not feel the same way. She collected so many of the stories from her elders, many of which she included in her books. She said she did this to preserve them. She also wrote an English-Lushootseed dictionary, and spent years recording and teaching her native tongue, so that would also survive.

    Vi even decided that some of the Upper Skagit healing songs needed to be adapted into symphony form so that those of European descent could better hear and understand them, and heal. She got a famous composer on board and worked with him on the music. She also informed the Northwest’s premier conductor Gerard Schwartz that he was going to volunteer his time and services and take charge of this performance, and then somehow managed to get the event scheduled for a performance in the magnificent Benaroya Hall. It was a seamless flawless performance of drum, rattles, mountain goat hooves and violins, woodwinds, brass, in four movements. It was awesome that a blind and frail ancient grandmother had this vision and pulled this amazing ceremony together without spending a penny–it was a tribute to her personal vision and power. She insisted that no admission fee be charged, because people needed to hear and heal, and you couldn’t put a price on that. I cried through the whole performance. It took several years, and when she first had the idea very few people thought she could pull it off, but they didn’t know Vi. I was just so thankful that she lived to see her dream fulfilled.

    • What a beautiful story, Naomi. I love hearing stories of people who have so much power and use their power for good. So often our stories revolve around the negative use of power the brings pain and suffering. Both of these stories need to be told so we truly understand the different types of power that impact on who we are and how we can use them to shape who we want to be (even when we are 70 and may not have much being left). 🙂

      • Pat, your response to Naomi, touched me deeply. I know you are engaged in telling both stories, and doing so with as much finesse as possible. Perhaps that is one thread here, the desire to share all the stories.

      • You are so right, and the stories we tell of those who have caused pain and trauma need to be told in a way that doesn’t cause more pain. Passing judgement, as some things are just plain wrong, is difficult to do with compassion. I use the Biblical story of Jesus at the well as my guide. Jesus acknowledged her wrongdoing and she was excited because he knew her. That was my most rewarding moments as a therapist and an educator. Now I am learning to do it as a writer and photographer.

      • Pat, How to address bad conduct is always a conundrum for me. Increasingly, as I age, I just don’t have patience for meanness. At the same time, I want to hold compassion. At some point, one has to act with compassion and clarity. Anyway, your gifts as a visual storyteller come shining through in your work.

  2. Michael, wonderful post. Sometimes I have a hard time recognizing my stories – and recognizing that they can heal. When I was working on my Ph.D., I was walking somewhere with one of the founders of the school I was attending. He was asking me about where I came from. All of a sudden he replied that I came from a long line of very strong women. It stopped me in my tracks and I realized that I had never acknowledged their stories as my story and the acknowledgement made a huge healing difference in my life. Thank you Frederick Hudson for reflecting my story back into me.

    • Hi Pat, I read your thoughts and was immediately reminded of a marvelous teacher I had as an undergraduate. His name was Ray Must, and he taught printmaking. Unlike most of the art faculty, though, he was more interested in stories than in pictorialism. At the same time, he was an immensely visual storyteller. Anyway, he changed my life, although I never shared that with him. I hope he knew.

  3. So beautiful Michael. I just launched my chapbook last Wednesday and the first poem I performed had a line about this – “I was fed on sun and sea and stories” because I was brought up in a storytelling culture. TV and the internet have replaced this, and the problem is that the technology has tended to represent only one side of the world’s stories. At te end of the day, we will need to be the ones to get our stories heard.

    • Shery, I am very aware that finding audience for story can be a challenge. Those dominant cultural stories are truly insidious, yet we have found ways to tell our stories anyway. I think it is getting more difficult as the media become more dominant. I am curious how we will keep our cultures and pass them on. I am hopeful.

  4. Beautiful post Michael. In my childhood we were told many adventures and fables, which all were a part of our learning about behaviour, acting right or wrong. I used storytelling to my own kids, when they were kids, specially before bedtime or when I wished to teach them something important, which worked very well.

    • Irene, in our traditional cultures stories were the teachers. Folks knew hardship and danger, and helped children learn to manage their stress, fear, and sorrow. They also taught great hope. I am glad you were able to story the lives of your children, and to choose the content, rather than relying on TV or movies to decide what stories to tell.

      • Thank you Michael. For years in their childhood I did not have a TV, because I prefered to read the news in a newspaper and not get any ugly photos or film in my head, when I did not need to and neither did the kids. Today I don’t have TV and I’m very happy with that. I can find all the news as I wish to read online, without being forced to see photos and videos in same time. I really don’t need those.
        Still I like story telling or reading, they are both great ways for learning.
        I hope your Spring will come through fast, so you also get some more sunshine 🙂

  5. I like the meandering nature of your reflections, the way they flow with your train of thought. Always a feel good read in that regard. As far as healing stories, The Simpsons were always helpful. There was the healing power of the laughter of course, but the characters were flawed in so many ways, yet lovable and much loved. Helped me not to take myself so seriously and to find self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.

    • Hi Leeby Geeby, Yes, the Simpsons are much loved by many, and for the same reasons. The creators do a marvelous job of making the characters human, of telling small, deeply personal stories with long legs.

  6. Michael I find this so interesting, particularly the concept of the difference between the Native American sense of community in the stories and the lack of such in the European fairy tales which are the ones I was brought up with – and so true when I consider it, they are all about dysfunctional families and communities and individuals on quests of one kind or another. I was an only child and quite solitary so these perhaps resonated with me.

    • Andrea, these differing visions of what is important re community are at the heart of the conflict between Indigenous people in the Americas and the European immigrants/settlers. They create such different worldviews and ethical frameworks. Sometimes the gulf seems immense indeed!

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