Roots of the Healing Narrative, Part 2

This post originally appeared on September 1 at

Telling our stories in ways that move us toward healing can bring us face-to-face with what we might call ‘universal truths.’ The excerpts below do just this, and come from, respectively (and reduced to these bullet points with my deepest apologies):

    • a rabbi who questioned his faith when his 3-year-old son was diagnosed with progeria
    • an anthropologist who explores how we “compose our lives” through how we tell our stories
    • a college professor and writer who was diagnosed at age 35, and eventually succumbed to ALS
    • a law professor who, in her own words, “…got sick and never recovered” in May 2001, and
    • “a research psychologist who accidently discovered the power of writing in an experiment I conducted in the mid-1980s” and who’s now, arguably, the top researcher on the effectiveness of writing as a healing modality.

Part 1 of this blog offered selections from The Bhagavad Gita, The Consolation of Philosophy and Man’s Search for Meaning as ‘historical evidence’ that narrative healing emerged at least 2,000 years ago, and that even the most horrific, specific story – like Frankl’s concentration camp, can bring forth a focused narrative that carries universal truth. (Click here to view Part 1).

Allow these writers to speak to you – take in their respective contexts and emphases, as Bateson suggests, and check for your take on the universality of what each has to say.

When Bad things...

“The question we should be asking is not ‘Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?’…. A better question would be ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?’” (p. 136).

– Harold S. Kushner. When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981)

Sacred Stories“I want to … encourage you to think about the creative responsibility involved in the fact that there are different ways to tell your stories. It’s not that one is true and another is not true. It’s a matter of emphasis and context.” (p. 42)

“The choice you make affects what you can do next.” (p. 43)

“… what I want to emphasize are the advantages of choosing a particular interpretation at a particular point in time, and the even greater advantage of using multiple interpretations.” (p. 48)

– Mary Catherine Bateson. “Composing a Life.” in Charles Simpkinson and Anne Simpkinson’s Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power of Stories to Transform and Heal (1993)

Learning to Fall“I don’t mean to say that my diagnosis makes me special. Life, as I’ve said before, is a terminal condition. Those of us with terminal illnesses simply have been blessed—and I mean blessed—with having the facts of our own mortality held constantly before us.” (p. 14)

“To choose the world means first of all to see it clearly, to shed fantasy and habit, to look, and look again, to let ourselves be broken open by its intricacy and its mystery.” (p. 100)

– Philip Simmons. Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (2000)

How to be sick“Even more astonishing was the realization that, as sick as I was at that moment and as preoccupied as I was about the task awaiting me in less than ten minutes, there was still some kindness, serenity, and compassion inside me to send to others on the out-breath….[Tonglen] took me out of my small world.” (p. 99)

– Toni Bernhard. How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (2010)

Expressive writing“Expressive writing is a self-reflective tool with tremendous power. By exploring emotional upheavals in our lives, we are forced to look inward and examine who we are. This occasional self-examination can serve as a life-course correction.” (p. 21)  

– James W. Pennebaker and John F. Evans. Expressive Writing: Words that Heal (2014)

We are continuing to write the history of narrative healing as it emerges and evolves according to the needs, knowledge and worldview of those who choose to engage it. While research makes it clear that some strategies and approaches work better than others, Pennebaker is just as clear that answers to questions like if, how, for how long, and when to write vary from individual to individual, and he encourages us to “try out new methods that may be helpful,” reminding us that “Some might work wonderfully; others might not work at all.” (p. viii)

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