We have been speaking of the importance of being in touch with and naming our own deepest experience, and stressed that images and stories name these far better than everyday language. We added further that stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles, perhaps most helpfully through the lens of our sacred worth.
Some of our own experiences can also look differently at different times in our lives. Some events during high school, such as our early romantic adventures, seemed dramatically serious at the time. Looked back on after many years, they now seem hilariously funny. Some painful experiences of the past we now realize have been helpful in our growth. My own struggle towards fluency in French during a three year stay in Quebec City gave me a realization how every language and culture provides a window to life, and that each is at once enriching yet limiting. Many colleagues there, for example, found the English distinction between “like” and “love” very helpful. I found the French word “épanouissement,” richer than any English translation, such as “flourishing” or “personal development.”
We have spoken before of how the script or story by which we form an image of ourselves and name or interpret our lives first comes to us from those who took care of us–or failed to do so even adequately–in our early childhood. That family script in turn was influenced by the predominant cultural script or by that of a minority group to which they belonged. As we grew, something within us may have pushed against that inherited image and script, or in some way accepted it and made it our own. One writer, Joan Halifax, says that to think of painful childhood experiences not as “gifts” but as “givens.” We cannot change the past but we can lessen its hold on our present and future. Instead of prisons that ever enclose us, we may then regard the as events from which we can move forward.
In his book on folk tales, The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes that our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. This task involves developing our inner resources, and sensing that we may make a significant contribution to life. What most helps the child to find meaning, he says, is the impact of those who take care of the child, and the cultural heritage, especially through stories, such as folktales. These stories help the child by providing images for all their positive and negative feelings, and give them confidence that they can deal with and grow from their struggles. Like the fairy-tale hero they may feel lost at first, but be assured that they will find their right place in the world and develop meaningful relationships. Hansel and Gretel, for example, wander lost for a time, but gradually discovers hidden treasures,. These are their sense of self-worth and compassion.
We might add that those who take care of the child may succeed or fail in different degrees. But, the heritage of stories can enrich and expand the child’s vision of self and life. This development can occur through exposure to stories of real depth. These are that take into account and help to name all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures. What we need in a story is a vision of life, an image and a script, that enable and challenge us to celebrate our joys, survive our sorrows, share our lives, and help build our world. The truth of a story concerns not so much the facts of the story–whether or not it actually happened. It concerns more deeply the vision of life the story contains: the picture of what a human being is and what life really means.
What is involved here is the situation of our own story within a larger story. The larger story can help us understand and interpret–and change–our own story. Yet this wider story, which may come from nation, culture, religion, etc., can itself be confining, limited by setting our own group against those of others. Spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, stresses an inclusive both/and rather than a dualistic either/or approach to life. He says that our own and our “tribal” story needs to be seen in the context of a still wider. more universal story, one that is part of the perennial wisdom of humankind. Joseph Campbell’s story of the hero or heroine and Thomas Berry’s Universe Story would be examples of this wider context. In our perspective, that wider context is the unfolding of the vast universe in the direction of the sacred worth of each and every human being and of all that is.
May you find a story that holds you in respect and compassion for yourself and in ever widening circles for others.
Norman King. September 05, 2021