Stories. We all have them. But we are not our stories. We simply live inside our stories.
Some people, perhaps most, mistakenly identify themselves with their story. They see their core identity as “urban minority,” “good old boy,” or “the family peacemaker.” Maybe they see themselves as the entitled princess, or the ragamuffin, ne’er-do-well, hopeless alcoholic, dummy, loser, or too sinful to be forgiven.
Deep within all of us lies the true self. The road to spiritual and emotional wholeness involves finding that true self and reconnecting it with universal love. For me, spiritual direction is invaluable in the process.
We need to own our stories for good or ill, explore them, learn from them, celebrate parts of them and heal from other parts.
Our stories are like houses we live in. They form around us as we grow. They’re added onto, expanded, remodeled. There are parts of some of our stories to embrace – those positive life lessons we absorbed from our caregivers. I have a friend who was raised in a poor family with lots of siblings and not enough food, yet her mother taught the children to love everyone, appreciate their gifts, and not be envious.
Parts of our story-houses decay, rot, fall in. Some portions of our story-houses may be toxic, like pipes wrapped in asbestos or drywall saturated with black mold. That’s especially true for those who experienced trauma. Too many people were sexually assaulted, molested, physically abused, or seriously neglected as children.
I tutored two elementary age children with their homework. One had severe learning disabilities because she was so hungry as a toddler that she ate lead-based paint chips off the windowsill. The other had most of his outer ear missing. Rats chewed it off when he was an infant lying in his crib.
Running a group therapy session for convicted perpetrators of incest, I was shaken by the story of one man who described his drunk father beating him into unconsciousness while he raped his 3-year-old sister every night.
A child losing a parent to divorce or death, losing a sibling to a violent sudden death, being victimized by war, pandemic, or street violence – these are all examples of trauma that becomes part of our stories. The younger the trauma, the more damaging.
We begin by facing our stories.
Things that are helpful and healthy we embrace and celebrate with appreciation void of arrogance. For some, that’s harder than it sounds. Many a privileged person becomes entitled, prideful, full of self-importance and looks down her nose at others. False personas may be invented that ignore systemic racial and economic inequality. “We worked hard for what we have.” “Grandpa started this business from the ground up with no help from anyone.”
Traumatic stories may be even more difficult. In cases of severe trauma, our minds lock out the memory to protect us from the intense pain. That’s normal, but eventually toxic. The locked-out memory will fester deep within and poison our souls.
To be fully human and fully alive, we must, at some point, face our demons. That, however, must never be rushed. Inexperienced counselors can cause significant damage by pulling up traumatic stories before their time.
First, we have to own our stories. Some of us are so in denial that we imagine we’re living in a pretty little cottage covered in roses, when in reality our story-house is a disheveled shack. Like most families, mine was a mixed bag. My mother came from a small town filled with a lot of relatives who helped each other out. She and her siblings presented an idyllic picture of growing up. They ignored their father’s suicide, their mother’s tuberculosis that put her in a sanitarium for a year, their poverty, and the white privilege that permeated the culture.
Our story-houses hold the good, the bad, and the ugly.
How do we know when we’re ready to renovate and remodel our story-houses? Some signs I’ve found in my own inner work:
· As we discover a growing awareness of the unconditional, perfect love of God, we slowly begin to deeply understand that our core identity is Beloved. We begin to relax into the everlasting arms of the Divine. We start to learn to love ourselves. We see evidences of divine love in others and in the natural world. Appreciation begins to flow.
· Memories slowly return, sometimes in dreams, or during times of prayer and meditation. Quite often, they will surface during therapy. Therapy is a safe place for traumatic memories emerge into the conscious mind.
· We’re close to being ready for the interior work of healing when we find ourselves bored with parts of our stories, having told them to our spiritual director or counselor innumerable times.
At the right time, the process of renovation can begin. Renovation involves three aspects.
1. Celebrating the good
2. Demolishing the traumatic
3. Creating the new
Celebrate the good. Embrace achievements. Practice gratitude and appreciation. Make lists of things you’re grateful for. Make another list of your strong points and gifts, and thank God for them. In my family of origin, we never celebrated anything. Doing so was considered ostentatious and prideful. The opposite can also be unhelpful. One can become a braggart or a narcissist.
Demolish the traumatic. A caution. It’s not wise to try to do this by yourself. You need an experienced spiritual director, counselor, or therapist who can guide you and encourage you, and help you go at a safe pace. The process involves telling the traumatic story over and again. In my practice, it then involves bringing God into the story, using active imagination to replace the old story with a healing alternative.
And that brings us to the rebuild. A new story begins to immerge. It’s more of a renovation than a complete demolition and new construction, although in extreme cases, that may be a more apt metaphor. Normally, the new structure includes the positive from the old, but it’s upgraded with a new, fresh, joyous understanding of ourselves. The new story-house holds a deeply loved and loving person.
As we settle into the renovated story-house, a settled, peaceful awareness warms our souls. We become deeply content. We know who we are, who we were created to be. We are filled with love. We like our story-houses, but they are not us.