"There is an ongoing tension between living as our own stories dictate as opposed to dictating the stories we live. We both shape and are shaped by our stories." Daniel Taylor
George Gerbner, journalist and professor of communications, observed that the people who tell the stories are the ones who have the greatest influence on how we live and how our children will grow up. Not so long ago, considering the vast history of human kind, we received most of our stories from trustworthy elders who had our best interests at heart. Today, profit driven television has become our primary storyteller. By the time American children graduate from high school, it's been estimated that they've been exposed to a minimum of 360,000 advertisements, and on average, by the time we die, most Americans will have spent an entire year of our lives watching television commercials. When we stop to consider what the message of this incredibly pervasive story teller has been, it's not too difficult to appreciate how much soul the American story has lost, and how much of our soul has been silenced by a story heard thousands of times every day across America, a story whose constant refrain is, "buy me."
Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, observed that his work as a healer didn't truly begin until he recognized that the key to comprehending ourselves resided in our stories. Jung also maintained that until each of us actively shaped and lived the unique story that resided at our core, our lives would lack the direction and meaning that we long for. If we lose our story, or fail to live it, cautioned Jung, ultimately the very direction and purpose of our lives would slip away. I wonder how much of my own story has been lost to America's dominant and all pervasive story - a story that I was born into and to which I have had few authorship rights.
And then there's the story I was introduced to in training to be a psychotherapist. A story that stressed that the 'patient' is sick or broken and needs to be fixed, rather than that this unique and special person is in process and is responding to the world in which he or she lives. It was also a story that identified the therapist as the 'expert,' instead of a companion and ally - one with wounds of his or her own.
James Hillman in, "We've Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy," bravely (and outrageously according to many psychotherapists) declared that most psychotherapy models do something vicious to the people whom they are meant to serve. They internalize emotion. How? By so often turning the rage and pain brought on by the injustice, chaos, inequity, aggression, alienation, consumerism, and so much more that surrounds and diminishes us into personal demons and inadequacies. For instance, offers Hillman, imagine that a client has arrived at his therapist's office shaken and outraged. While driving his fuel efficient and compact car, he's just come very close to being run off the road by a speeding trailer truck. The outcome of this scenario, asserts Hillman, all too often leads to an exploration of how the truck reminds the client of being pushed around by his father, or that he's always felt vulnerable and fragile, or maybe he's furious that he isn't as powerful as 'the other guy.' The therapist ends up converting the client's stress (in response to an external experience) into anxiety - an inner state. The well meaning therapist has also managed to transmute the present into the past (the client's anger and fear is really about unresolved issues from childhood); and transforms the client's outrage about (the chaos, the craziness, the dangers, etc of the client's outer world) into rage and hostility. Thus, the client's pain regarding the external world has once again been turned inward. It's become pathology.
Hillman explains, "Emotions are mainly social. The word comes from the Latin ex movere, to move out. Emotions connect to the world. Therapy introverts the emotions, calls fear 'anxiety.' You take it back, and you work on it inside yourself. You don't work psychologically on what that outrage is telling you about potholes, about trucks, about Florida strawberries in Vermont in March, about burning up oil, about energy policies, nuclear waste, that homeless woman over there with the sores on her feet - the whole thing."
After over two decades as a psychotherapist, and almost a half a century as an American citizen, I've come to appreciate Hillman's wisdom. He maintains that a significant amount of what therapists have been trained to view as individual pathology, is often an indication of the sickness that exists within our culture. In doing this, laments Hillman, "We continue to locate all symptoms universally within the patient rather than also within the soul of the world. Maybe the system has to be brought into line with the symptoms so that the system no longer functions as a repression of the soul, forcing the soul to rebel in order to be noticed."
The Narrative therapist might call Hillman's perspective about therapy an 'alternative story.' When we begin to explore and acknowledge both our alternative and preferred stories, we're entering into a creative process where we lay claim to our authorship rights. Our alternative stories, unlike the dominant cultural stories that we were all too often conditioned to accept without question, evolve from our own personal experiences and values. During this process of exploration, evaluation, and creation, we're no longer simply 'readers' of our story, we become writers too.
From here, where we begin to openly critique and dismantle the dominant stories that we have not only lived, but that have come to live inside of us, we finally become free to envision a story that has personal meaning and integrity to us. During this tumultuous and pivotal time in our country's continuously evolving story, it may be more important now then ever that we ask ourselves the following questions, "is the story that I am currently living the story that I want to live? "Is this an honorable story?" Does my current story privilege community or competition, sustainability or excess, money or meaning, power or love?" "What are the essential themes of the American story that I no longer wish to participate in, and which themes do I want my story to embrace as an American?"