Several years ago at a conference I listened to a woman tell about the extraordinary home she lived in India when she was younger. One side of the house, she said, butted up against a slum area; people lived amid squalor and poverty, picking through trash in order to survive. Exiting a door on the other side of the house, she could enter into a beautiful secluded garden, where peacocks strutted among exotic flowers. Describing one’s life, much like describing the outside of this house, she continued, was largely a result of perspective:
I could tell you a story of my life that would make you very sad, and it would be true. I could tell you a story about my life that would seem very joyous, and that would also be true.”
Last week I was challenged to write the story of my own experience as the mother of a child with special needs. Applying for a family leadership fellowship on neurological disabilities, I was asked to sum up my experience raising a child with special needs in a page or so. In writing it, I recalled the woman’s story of India and realized that my story too depended largely on perspective. I could tell several different stories – each one true – depending on my vantage point.
I was startled by how easily I could evoke sadness and pity or triumph and exuberance depending on the experiences I chose to include. Even the same experience could be seen as positive or negative depending on the details. For example, there’s the very real fact that my son didn’t learn to walk until he was nearly four, along with all the accompanying challenges and inconveniences of that. But there’s also the fact that my son learned to walk at all, which wasn’t always a given, thanks to the help of a brilliant physical therapist. Which set of circumstances holds more weight for me?
Which brings me to the bigger question: what version of my story do I tell myself? I’m not talking about our public stories, like the one I was writing, or the ones we tell when we introduce ourselves or the 140 characters of a tweet or Facebook status update. We all know how true yet misleading and selective those glimpses can be at times. One well placed exclamation point or emoticon can change everything. No, I’m talking about the story I tell myself when there is no audience – my honest interpretation that creates meaning and context for my experiences. The version of events I tell myself with no make-up on at 2 am in the silence and the dark. And if I can do that, is there any value to it?
According to some, there is good reason to explore this. Therapist Michael White developed an entire branch of family counseling called narrative therapy; this form of therapy assumes that narratives or stories shape a person’s identity and then uses these stories to create a healthier or more creative outcome for his patients.
The usefulness of narrative isn’t new to most special needs parents. Most of us parents are welcomed in to the special needs world with the well known Welcome to Holland story. I know that for me, that gave and continues to give some meaning and context to my experience. For many of us, our very person story would echo some of the progression of that story.
For many people, the monomyth of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey also provides a meaningful narrative that describes a life of challenge, growth and redemption. His work is so rich that I can’t begin to describe it in this post, but I promise to get back to it soon, if only for my own benefit. For Campbell, Homer’s Odyssey was perhaps the archetype and I find strength and meaning in its arc of denying then accepting the calling, receiving divine aide, facing the trials, achieving the boon and returning back to help others.
I encourage all of you to give writing your own story a try. In one page or less, how would you summarize your plot? If it were a movie, would it be a comedy, a drama, a quirky indie flick or a horror movie? Do you have any lesson, truth or theme and how can you capture the complexity and contradictions of your experiences? Beware of trying to write how it ends. Just tell the story of what has happened up to this point; remember, we’re not whitewashing anything or trying to manifest anything through wishful thinking – just create order out of the chaos of what has already happened.
In the mean time, I continue to write and re-write my story. I know it can change on a dime, but for the moment it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.