how we tell our stories

Old friends, they mean much more to me than the new friends,
Cause they can see where you are,
and they know where you’ve been.

“Let Time Go Lightly”, Harry Chapin

Good food. Good wine. Good friends. Good conversation. A touch of heaven! Hubby and I recently gathered with old friends for such a heavenly moment. We have been friends with these wonderful folk for almost forty years. We’ve watched our children grow, and grand-children arrive. One by one, we’re re-inventing our lives in retirement.

Two friends in our group lost parents this past month. Both funerals were a testament to the blessing of a long life, fruitful families, and love. So much love. Tears and laughter mingled as stories and memories were shared, inviting us into the family circle.

“Dad had a real zest for life and fun. Let me tell you a story…”

“Mémère always made each of us feel so special and loved. Let me tell you a story…”

When we gathered last weekend, with the funerals behind us, present day conversations turned into reminiscences. Our friends are wonderful story-tellers. They have the gift of weaving a negative situation into a side-splitting tale. The really good stories deserve a re-telling, and they have been repeated many times over the years. Yet, we seldom tire of them. Misfortune is deflated with humour. Challenges transform into  opportunities for growth and new beginnings. These stories have become part of the narrative of our group.

A few weeks ago I came across this article,  The Two Kinds of Stories We Tell About Ourselves. It’s an excerpt from the book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, by Emily Esfahan Smith. (2017) I’m currently reading the book.

Smith describes the work of Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University psychologist and an expert on “narrative identity”. Narrative identity is “an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth”.

We choose which stories to tell about ourselves. We also choose how we tell them. Two main types of stories are what McAdams calls “redemptive stories” and “contamination stories”. The former are stories that “transition from bad to good”. The latter takes the opposite view; from good to bad.

“McAdams has found that beyond stories of redemption, people who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion and agency. These stories allow individuals to craft a positive identity: they are in control of their lives, they are loved, they are progressing through life and whatever obstacles they have encountered have been redeemed by good outcomes.”

I know what it’s like to be stuck in “contamination” mode, allowing a bad situation to blind you from any possible good outcomes. For example…

I’ve shared my experience of disillusion with the church many times on this blog. It began with a dysfunctional situation in our parish and diocese, over 20 years ago. The personal hurt overshadowed my faith and personal life for many years after. It was a real “dark night of the soul” experience. (Read here for more,  exile — a holy retreat)

When I’m in the midst of a life crisis or challenge, I have a story to tell and it might get nasty. Don’t talk to me about silver linings or redemption. I need to wallow. I need to tell and re-tell my one-sided story; the one where I am the blameless victim and the world is shitting on me. God bless good friends who patiently listen to my bitching and kvetching!

Thankfully, redemption usually comes. The bad is not as immutable as originally believed. Cracks appear in the darkness, allowing small signs of good to ever so subtly shine through. It may takes weeks or months. Sometimes, like with my church experience, it takes years.

What seemed insurmountable turns into a bridge to new possibilities. Challenges morph into opportunities for transformation. Slowly, ever so slowly, the story, too, is transformed. It might not have a Pollyanna “happy ever after” ending, but good has come from bad.

As I get older, it’s easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel. (No, not that one…at least not yet, thank you!) It’s easier to hope that good will come out of bad, because it’s been experienced so many times before — in our own lives and in the lives of those we love. With age, comes the wisdom to know that stories seldom have a quick, easy, or even recognizable ending. After all, every good story is filled with conflict, unexpected twists and surprises.






7 thoughts on “how we tell our stories

  1. I wonder if how we tell our stories is connected to how we see life in general. I am a ” glass half full”, type of person and tend to present my life’s struggles from this perspective. I also notice I wait until an event has passed and I can see the ( sometimes tarnished) silver lining before I choose to embrace that chapter of my life.

    1. That’s the thinking behind the story-telling styles, Joanne. Those who seek the “redemptive” narrative tend to be more positive. I’m like you, my friend. I can’t always see the redemption when I’m in the midst of the kaka. I tend to get a better perspective in the “rear view mirror”…once time has passed. The story transforms with my own transformation.

      No one can be happy and positive all the time. It’s not human! But I do find that those who identify with “contamination” narratives all the time can be real energy suckers. The negativity can be draining for both the story-teller and the listener. Sigh…

  2. Just “thinking” – our Church, our faith “story” is at its ”
    Core” a “redemptive” one. Have our faith “story tellers” essentially turned it upside- down to “condemnitory”? For Roman Catholics, our religion is a profoundly cultural influence on what we think, how we feel. It seems that religious and spiritual maturation is realizing this, dealing with the “guilt” of becoming emancipated and then getting on with re-discovery of our redemptive path.

    1. A great thought, Dennis! Like us with our personal narratives, the church has always chosen WHICH stories to tell, and HOW to tell them. Hmmm….lots to ponder here…Think I have a topic for the next post. Thanks!

      1. Little story. Couple of weeks ago I went to one of those new “consolidated” theater churches for mass. The homelist, an impressive “believable” orator; the theme, “Law and Order” (the “hook” being the TV police series) with the professed perspective of “order”. But all he talked about was “law”. So, order is redefined as submission to “law” – church. He had to know what he was doing, manipulative. But…the cong. lapped it up. So, using the ounce of truth he created a pound of untruth. Small example but illustrative, for me.
        Big example: every person is equal before God. Almost dogma. But then, “equality” is re-defined to accommodate excluding “equal” women persons from full participation because of “difference”. Platonism when it works; Aristotle when it’s convenient. Self-serving utilitarianism always.

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