We are exhausted, frustrated, burnt out, feeling unappreciated, lost, stressed to the max, and our students at the service site are disrespectful and disruptive, so what do we do? We tell someone. Good, but how do we tell them?
We all know the experience of feeling sad and when we share that feeling with a friend, we brake down into tears. Our friends take pause and think, Wow, he is really really down. But what we don’t realize is that the telling is not necessarily bringing out what is locked inside so much as the performance of our sadness outside. The story actualizes itself in the telling. The way we are telling the sad story is making it even sadder so that it is a reality we are in the act of creating, not simply reporting.
We are talking ourselves into a deeper vulnerability than what we may have been feeling at first. Proof of that is our friend who catches the same feelings and starts to feel depressed about your feeling depressed. We have told our stories in ways that make us weaker.
When the indigenous communities in Australia were exposed to the Narrative Therapy approach of Michael White, they summed it all up in one neat phrase, that we are learning to tell our stories in ways that make us stronger. That means that their stories bear witness to more than the struggle or the pain. They are testimonies of survival, revealing a deeper courage to refuse to let suffering silence us. We must speak up. They are evidence of emancipation and energy.
That does not mean that they have to be all optimistic or full of false hope. But when we tell stories of our pain and center them around bravely confronting the challenges and limits, and not telling them to make our listeners pity us or offer cheap advice, then we are building strength.
We can tell our stories in ways that make us angrier, especially stories of injustice and oppression and neglect, but anger might only serve to make us more reactive, more easily provoked. We are thereby made even weaker.
We can tell our stories that make us feel more and more helpless and a victim, and we hear ourselves pleading “What did I do to deserve that?” or “Aren’t I a human being too?” or “There was nothing we could do.” The listeners are enrolled in the same feeling of despair that we feel, which only spreads our impotence.
We must learn to tell stories of our anger that become rage and then allow the rage to mature into courage. We must learn to tell stories of our being victimized without becoming the victim and to use our telling as the signal of resistance, of fighting back, not giving up. Pain finds a voice and seeks a hearing that is on the path to healing. If all it does is wound us all over again, we are only deepening the hurt.
We must tell our stories but we must learn to tell them in the ways that honor our deeper intentions and our highest purposes. As witnesses to our own lives, we owe it to ourselves not to conform to the transactional and therapeutic model of neediness, of always couching our problems as struggles or as symptoms made for someone else’s expert diagnosis.
We are responsible for our own lives. We need not exchange our agency for cheap consolation. Most of the advice we get is nothing more than well intentioned chatter. It is rarely what another will do for you. Our friends and colleagues are telling you what you should do for you, and they are not you, so perhaps save time, and cut out the middle man.
You do you, and even in the rough patches, perform the hero, the rebel, the heretic, the fighter, the sage, the prophet. Stories give us the chance to transform our experience into something beyond just the sadness and the loss. They are humankinds most powerful tool of liberation. But the magic lies in how you tell it.