[Part of a series, this essay explores a subheading from Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.]
In an earlier essay, we considered six questions and statements that are important for the healing process. Here they are again, with the first five linked to a brief overview:
- Who am I, really?
- Everything is a story.
- What’s my impact & what impacts me?
- What am I not seeing?
- Who are my people?
- I am going to die.
- How am I in relationship with each of the above questions and statements — and the rest of my life?
We’re focusing on that final question here. Another way to ask the question is “What is the nature of my relationship with…” who I think I am or whether or not everything is a story or what I might not be seeing. Underlying the importance of relationship is the context of healing, which, as we discussed earlier, begins with coming to terms with things as they are. More to the point, when something happens — whether it is expected or unexpected, or considered “good” or “bad” — how we relate to it is as important as — perhaps more important than — the thing that has happened. What is my relationship with the positive or negative test result, the new job or job loss, the argument with my friend, the election result, the stubbed toe, the spilt milk?
This is nothing new. Teachings on our relationships with our minds, events, and stories have been around for millennia:
“It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control, but it can be conquered… through regular practice and detachment” (6.35) — The Bhagavad Gita, c. 500–200 BCE.
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” — Epictetus, The Enchiridion¸ c. 0–200 CE.
“No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent him….So nothing is miserable except when you think it so, and vice versa, all luck is good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity.” (II.iv) — Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, c. 522–524 CE.
“Be grateful for whoever comes, / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.” — Rumi, from “The Guest House,” c. 1240–1260, CE, trans. Coleman Barks.
“[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
“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?’” — Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
“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….The choice you make affects what you can do next.…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.” — Mary Catherine Bateson, “Composing a Life.”
“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.” — Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life
“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.” — Toni Bernhard, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers
“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.”
— James W. Pennebaker and John F. Evans, Expressive Writing: Words that Heal
Indeed, our relationships with what we perceive as triumphs, disasters, successes, and failures determine and are determined by the stories we choose to tell about our lives. What stories are you telling such that your relationships are as they are? How might your relationships (and you) shift if you revised your stories?
Bateson, Mary Catherine. “Composing a Life.” Sacred Stories: A
Celebration of the Power of Stories to Transform and Heal. Eds.
Charles & Anne Simpkinson. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,
1993. (42- 48).
Bernhard, Toni. How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the
Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2010. (99).
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. V.E. Watts. New York: Penguin, 1969. (63).
Easwaran, Eknath, trans. The Bhagavad Gita. Tomales CA: Nilgiri, 1985. (108).
Epictetus, The Enchiridion. https://gist.github.com/romainl/d67523aae35c34d36ad5
Frankl, Victor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. 4th ed. Boston: Beacon, 1992/1946. (75).
Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon, 1981. (136).
Pennebaker, James W. and John F. Edwards. Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor, 2014. (21).
Rumi, Jelaluddin, “The Guest House.” The Essential Rumi. Trans., Coleman Barks, with John Moyne. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. (109).
Simmons, Philip. Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life.
New York: Bantam, 2002. (14).