Naming Experience Through Story

Last week, I referred to the story of Pandora as an expression of how life contains both joy and sorrow, both bitter and sweet. Yet it yet can be lived with an underlying sense of gratitude and hope. Life is a precious gift, endowed with a sacred worth, even though it may sometimes hurt immensely.
I also suggested that every experience can be interpreted as containing a gift and call to bring something to life within us and around us, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. This is one of the stories that we can tell ourselves to interpret our experience.
Each of us contains within ourselves the whole range of human experiences, from fear to love, anger to excitement, sadness to joy. One actor said that the way to portray a character was to get in touch within yourself the feelings that the character expressed, since all these feelings are present within each of us. The children’s story that Jane and I wrote, The Rainbow Tear, tries to express in a simple way the reality that each of us has all the human feelings,  that it is important to recognize this truth, and that these feelings are best held together in love.
The story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what our life is about will affect how we live out our life. At the deepest level, we want our life to follow a good script and tell a good story. To do so, it needs to have an image of ourselves as a being of sacred worth. It also needs a script that takes into account all the ambiguities, the both/and of life.
A recent podcast contained a jarring comment: When children are abandoned by their parents, they do not cease to love their parents, they cease to love themselves. That felt abandonment may not always be a result of abuse or neglect. It may come from an inevitable parental illness or death or a tragic life situation. Physician Gabor Maté felt abandoned as an infant, even though his mother entrusted him to a stranger in order to save his life, because of the World War II holocaust. Through a compassionate self-awareness, often aided by a caring presence in one’s life, a person may uncover their own sacred worth, and a positive script that follows that awareness.
What is really crucial is to have a story which enables us and helps us to see ourselves and life truthfully and in depth. We need a story which helps us to live our life fully and meaningfully and responsibly. We need a story which helps us to share our lives and take an active part in our society. We need a story that helps us to understand and deal with the pain and tragedy that are a part of every life.
We need images and stories that are not superficial or naive, warped or destructive,  but that take into account all that goes into our makeup. These acknowledge all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and mistakes, while holding gratefully to our underlying worth. In short, we need a story, a vision of life that enables and challenges us to celebrate our joys and survive our sorrows, to share our lives, and build our world.
As our life unfolds, we are at first shaped by the stories that we have heard, from family, school, culture, mass media, and the like. Some of these, such as those which hold up an external model of success, can be inadequate. This is especially so if they negate our inner value, or  if they do not take into account the whole range of human experience, or do not help us deal with the sorrows of life.
In this sense, the truth of a story is not so much concerned just with the facts of the story. Rather, it concerns more deeply the vision of life the story contains: the picture of what a human being is and what life really means. Soap operas look externally realistic, yet are often emotionally unreal. Folk tales seem unrealistic, yet they contain profound truths about life. In the story of Rapunzel, for example, we are told that two of Rapunzel’s tears fell on the eyes of the blinded young prince and restored his sight. The meaning seems to be that when our sorrows are borne in a life-giving way, they can be a source of vison and healing for others.
In this regard, scholar John Dominic Crossan expresses the thought bluntly. “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
An invitation and challenge here is to expose ourselves to some of the enduring stories of humankind, and let these shape our imagination. One suggestion is that we approach any story with the words, “once upon a time.” This approach may offer a helpful imaginative framework within which to absorb the story.
I would like to conclude this week’s reflection with a couple of examples of stories, with a brief interpretation.
The story of Echo in Greek mythology tells of a young woman whose punishment is that she can only repeat what she hears. On one level it is an imaginative reflection on the experience of an echo in which a sound comes back to us until it gradually fades away. At a deeper level, the story suggests that we must find our own voice from within, beyond merely echoing what we hear from without. To do so is to make our own contribution to life. Not to do so is to fade away and to die within. In the words of Thomas Merton, contemplative writer, if we do not speak from our true self discovered in solitude, our speech will merely secrete clichés.
A story, familiar to many, The Prodigal Son, need not be merely factual information about a young man who loses his way. It suggests rather that, even if we sever basic bonds, throw away our gifts, lose our way, and destroy much of the life that is within us, it is still not too late. We may begin at least to glimpse something deeper within us. And another caring person may recall us to our deepest self, beneath all wounds. In the face of the sometimes daunting experience of mistakes in life, the story calls us to remember that our sacred worth is deeper than and not destroyed by any brokenness or wrongness.
In effect, to understand ourselves, one another, and life’s meaning, we need the help of images and stories that affirm a deeper underlying worth which includes an awareness of our shadow self. I recall after reading a number of novels of Margaret Laurence that she implies all her characters are flawed, yet she sees them as likeable beneath these flaws.
May you all find an image of yourself, your core self and your whole self, and a script to live by that allows for the shadows that fall across your life, yet affirms your underlying sacredness.

Norman King, June 19, 2023