Friday, December 10, 2010

The healing cleaver

Yesterday I posted about the issue of context in story listening, and how I try to preserve context and worry that I fail. Today I listened to two doctors tell stories about how listening to their patients tell their stories helps them work together to find solutions to problems. (This was on a teleconference from the Plexus Institute on the topic of Narrative in medicine, about which a colleague told me and many thanks, colleague. I think the Plexus Institute puts up archived recordings of these calls if you want to listen to their stimulating accounts. Look for archived PlexusCalls.)

The two doctors on the call reminded me of something I had forgotten. They talked about how part of the therapeutic solution doctors and other health providers offer to patients is just the opportunity to tell their story to someone who cares and is listening. The story is the therapy, they said. They mentioned the gratitude they have found in patients for this act of listening, not for any solutions proposed but just for the chance to speak and be heard.

The sword in his mother's hand

I had forgotten that. I myself have been amazed to find so many people grateful to be heard in the story collections I have helped people put together. Generally the storytellers in the projects I help clients with have been asked (begged) to contribute to something, a goal or a cause, though sometimes they have been simply paid or required to contribute and given no other reason to speak. In most projects some number of people have inevitably expressed gratitude for what they have usually called the chance or the opportunity to speak. Some who don't say it directly have radiated their gratitude indirectly, through their stories. Sometimes you can just feel the relief people have at finally being asked the right question that gives them the permission to share their experiences and perspectives.

This made me think about my post yesterday. If the severing of context from a story is always negative, if asking people to recount their experiences to strangers and using those stories to represent people without their further participation is a dangerous enterprise open to abuses of power, how could anyone possibly feel gratitude about it? Should they not cry out in protest? Why do so many people seem to honestly enjoy the experience?

I wonder if in my soul searching I've been too one-sided in looking for solutions and blame. Maybe sometimes the loss of context in storytelling is exactly what is needed. It could be empowering as well as coercive, and maybe at the same time. Maybe sometimes a story that cannot be told within the boundaries of family, friends and community can be told beyond those boundaries, and that could lead to reflections and revelations impossible otherwise. Maybe sometimes the cleaver heals.

It reminds me of this great Sting song that goes:
He looked beneath his shirt today
There was a wound in his flesh so deep and wide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside
He turned around to face his mother
To show her the wound in his breast that burned like a brand
But the sword that cut him open
Was the sword in his mother's hand ...

Though the sword was his protection
The wound itself would give him power
The power to remake himself at the time of his darkest hour
She said the wound would give him courage and pain
The kind of pain that you can't hide
From the wound a lovely flower grew
From somewhere deep inside
Maybe what I have not been considering, in my struggle to work ethically, is that effective story exchange should be both a tie that binds and a sword that cleaves. If that is true, cleaving context from story becomes not something uniformly to be avoided, but something to be used at the right place and time. When is that place and time? I don't know. It is something I'd like to think more about. If the creation of distance is an essential element in story collection, when is it essential and when is it obstructive? When does it help and when does it hurt?

The power to remake himself at the time of his darkest hour. Isn't that what stories do for us, give us the power to remake ourselves? Maybe it is in our darkest hour when we need the distance a loss of context can provide. Maybe that is why I've seen the people with the worst, saddest stories show the most gratitude. They have the most to reveal, the strongest boundaries, and the greatest reason not to reveal their stories without the freeing context of no-context. Why do people call suicide hotlines when they are surrounded by family and friends who would do anything, go anywhere, pay anything, to help them in their time of need? Maybe sometimes the cleaver heals.

Clothes or skins? 

I'm not saying my ritualized practices of relying on storyteller interpretations as maps of authenticity are not warranted. I still believe it is manipulative and self-deluding to interpret the stories of others without attempting to preserve some understanding of their meaning in situ. But maybe the key to helping people collect and work with their stories is not in preserving context above all else, but in helping them manage the interplay of cleaving distance and joining intimacy.

I've thought about this duality in stories for a long time: are they objects or living beings? I've seen lots of people excoriate those on the other side of that divide. Those who treat stories as objects say: Don't put too much stock into stories. Don't treat them as powerful forces and don't be deluded into thinking they represent reality. They are just shiny playthings, constructions created for purposes, artifacts, masks. When my son was very little, he would describe people based on the colors of their clothing, not realizing people didn't define people that way. We would read a book and he'd say, "I liked that red man" or "That blue man said mean things." It was only later that he realized I separated clothing from identity and stopped doing that. People who see stories as objects see them like clothing, things that can be put on and taken off. They caution us not to take them too seriously.

Those who treat stories as living beings say the opposite: revere stories for their centrality to the human experience. Respect them, don't ship them around as commodities, don't remove their sacred layers of context. People on this side get all hot and bothered about voices and rights, and write long blog posts about the dangers of cleaving story from context and the daring temptations of manipulative interpretation by outsiders. I've been on this side, obviously, but I wonder if I have gotten too storier-than-thou about it for my own good. Maybe because I have felt the sharpness of the cleaver in my hand so often I have not understood its dual uses as I should. There is that great quote from Oscar Wilde: "Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth." Maybe sometimes stories should be masks we can put on and take off. Asking people to come into a room of strangers, or onto a web site, is like asking them to shed their skins as if they were clothes and try on others. It allows them to step outside of their clothes that say "single mother" or "struggling farmer" or "helpful doctor" and speak freely, unadorned by the confining encrustations of context. It transports.

Casting themselves into the wind

My favorite metaphor for stories is that they are like seeds, so I like to use it as a handy tool to explore any and all dilemmas. Seeds can be seen as objects, things that can be picked up and cast about by those in control of them. Some even speak of seeds as tools, elements of human-controlled technology.

But seeds can also be seen as living organisms with abundant abilities to adapt and respond: sharp spines, chemical weapons, adaptive growth patterns, the power to endure through harsh conditions and emerge when favorable conditions return. I've always been on the side of the living-organism view, I think. It is where I am when I talk about the horror of cleaving context from story. But there is a liberating merit, at the right place and time, to treating stories as objects, to casting them on the ground as a farmer casts seeds. To loosening the bonds of context and sacrificing the sacred to the profane. To Carnival and the breaking of rules. To shaking stories loose from their moorings and prodding them to travel. To giving them the gift of courage and pain.

But it's not that simple. Some seeds don't wait for farmers to cast them, and maybe some stories don't either. Some seeds cast themselves, with their pinafores of fluff and their whirligig motors. Some seeds build their own loss of context into their travels, and maybe some stories do, or want to, as well. If that is true, some stories may wield their own tiny cleavers and cut themselves loose. For these stories, maybe I am not the agent of control at all. Maybe I just delude myself into believing I have power over them. If it's true that some stories cleave themselves, the ethical narrative intermediary should not expend their energy on preserving context in every situation, because sometimes they will work against what they want to support. Instead they should find out what is most wanted in each circumstance. Which stories want to travel? Which have grown wings? How can you tell? I'm not sure. There must be some way of discerning a winged story from the burrowing sort. There must be some way of finding out which stories have cut themselves loose and are struggling to fly. Maybe in a story wings look like gratitude.

One bridge too far

From the story-seed bridge I see another nearby analogy (will you follow me there?) to mutation in natural selection. Mutation is a sort of shaking of the bag of life to see what will fall out of it. Mutation destroys cherished boundaries and concocts new combinations, some wondrous and some grotesque. When we cleave stories and cast them about, we are inserting some entropic forces into the order of cognitive, psychological and social explanation in order to reach new assemblages of order. If so, is that not the perfect role for a trickster to play? Should not a narrative intermediary fill that role, at times? Is the cleaving of story from context the spice of story work? Does it keep the process just unbalanced enough to keep it alive, even as it introduces the pain of destruction and renewal?

Oh, dear. I've done it now. The metaphor police are here. They have a warrant for my arrest on charges of flagrant mixing: "beyond all reasonable tolerance." I can't very well argue. I know I've been caught red-handed. I have to go.

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