Narrative Wreck

Along with at least 63 million fellow citizens, I’ve been all kinds of a wreck since the election. I don’t see myself as having any special insight, wisdom, or forward-looking strategy to offer, and I’ve been ambivalent about blogging for all kinds of reasons. I’m not sure if what I might have to add to the conversation is useful, but this morning I find myself following my instinct to write. Maybe it’s the coffee.

The one idea that keeps resurfacing for me is that the election of Donald Trump is an event that has so profoundly disrupted, frightened, shocked, and disoriented me that it has thrust me, kicking and screaming, into what some have called a state of “narrative wreckage.” I’m working on an upcoming book about an ancient 1st – 2nd Century rabbi (I know, another big money making book, right?), and I’m going to excerpt a small part of the current draft, because as I’ve been working on this book I’ve gotten into this whole narrative wreck idea. Here goes:

Arthur W. Frank is a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, and he is the author of The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics published in 1995. In the book, Frank discusses the ways that people cope with the disorientation, disruption, and chaos that come with the arrival of a serious illness or disability, with a special focus on how illness affects their life narratives. I was assigned readings from his book in rabbinical school in some of my pastoral counseling classes.

wounded

This is a great book. To this day I’m a bit baffled by the publisher’s choice of image for the cover. I guess they were going for a sense of someone vulnerable (i.e. naked) suddenly being off balance, falling backwards. But I’m afraid the cover really just looks a lot like … well, I’ll let you decide.

As a congregational rabbi, Frank’s ideas aided me in my efforts to provide people with helpful pastoral counseling during times of crisis and loss. …

In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank claims that when someone discovers that he or she has a serious, life-altering illness, the person becomes a “narrative wreck” (Frank credits this phrase to the American philosopher, Ronald Dworkin). The idea is that each one of us has an operating narrative that orients our lives. Serious illness interrupts that narrative and, initially, throws its subject into narrative chaos. …

Let me be clear that I’m not saying I think the election = the country suddenly having a serious illness. In the book I’m working on, I also explain that the illness metaphor doesn’t exactly fit the point I end up making about the time of the ancient rabbis’ historical situation.

What I find helpful, however, is the idea that sometimes life brings incredible disruptions – a death, a war, an epidemic, a shocking election with serious implications for millions’ of peoples’ safety and future – and that Frank’s description of the ways that we sometimes confront these narrative earthquakes may be helpful to us in our situation now.

Let me quote Frank again. In describing his work with people facing the news of serious illness or disability, he observes that for each of these people, the operating narrative each of them functioned within, whether consciously or not, became suddenly “. . . wrecked because its present [was] not what the past was supposed to lead up to, and the future [was] scarcely thinkable.” I think it’s fair to say that about half the U.S. population, at minimum, is feeling something like this, not to mention who-knows-how-many people around the world who are still trying to pick their jaws up off the floor in response to last November 8th.

Here’s another quote from the current draft of my book:

Frank writes that, having become a narrative wreck because of the shock and disruption of serious disease, the person coping with the illness faces the challenge of having to find a way to re-narrate his or her life going forward.

That’s part of what’s been so hard for me, and I assume for so many others, these past 12 days. The many competing theories of why Trump won, what the Democrats did wrong, what the media did wrong, what the Russians did to us, what the Republicans did with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and the competing rants about what the Democrats should do going forward all have added to my sense of confusion and disorientation. I don’t know whose analysis is right, and I don’t know what the best way forward is. I still can’t accept what happened, and I can’t simply shift into a posture of hunkering down and helping to do the work that now needs to be done because I’m confused about what exactly that work is. (Okay, on some of the immediate issues, like Bannon, or objecting publicly now to the creation of any kind of national registry for Muslims, I’m not having confusion about what to do, but I’m talking bigger picture than that.)

I’m still stuck somewhere in the swirl of “did this really happen?” and, to quote John Oliver, “what the f*** are we supposed to do now?”screenshot-2016-11-20-at-11-17-06-am On the second question, I hear various activists, pundits, and politicians offering very different recommendations.

Some people are saying organize, resist, and fight! Others are saying try to understand our white working class & rural neighbors!  Some are saying there needs to be a combo of both. And some are still saying it’s not too late to stop this from happening! I’m thinking of the petitions to the Electors urging them to either put Hillary in the White House or cause the House of Representatives to select the next president, presumably a Republican other than Trump. No, I don’t believe there’s any chance that’s going to happen, and yes, I signed on to all those petitions.

In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank describes the people he has worked with as ultimately responding to the crisis that serious illness has brought into their lives by trying to find a way to re-narrate their lives going forward in one of three common ways: the Restitution Story, the Chaos Story, and the Quest Story. Some of his patients would move from one of these coping strategies to another. Frank clearly thinks that only the third option is the most helpful, though he doesn’t judge people who end up going with either of the first two strategies. Here’s what I’ve written in the draft of my book about these three kinds of coping responses to the experience of narrative wreckage caused by serious illness:

The Restitution Story treats the illness as something temporary that medicine is going to heal completely. The subject tells herself that the interruption it is causing is only transitory, and that her pre-illness self-narrative will resume shortly. If this in fact is medically true, then the Restitution Story can work well for the subject. But, the Restitution Story can also be an expression of denial, serving only to delay the subject’s need for a new life narrative.

When a seriously ill person embraces what Frank calls a Chaos Story, he gets “sucked into the undertow of illness and the disasters that attend to it.” His new story is, in some respects, not even a coherent story – there is no viable narrative, except maybe the expectation of continued chaos or doom. He has no sense of a path towards a viable future meaningful life narrative. Here’s the contemporary American Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, quoting Hannah Arendt as she reflects on this idea. Salzberg writes:

In commenting on the power of a story to give our lives cohesion, writer Hannah Arendt says, “The story reveals the meaning of what otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.” To perceive the events of our lives as “sheer happenings” is indeed unbearable. [I wanted to explore a new story that] would take the scattered shards of my life and fit them all together in a new and different way.

The Chaos Story is full of panic and disorientation, and it is painful to witness someone who is living within its brutal and sorrowful grip.

Finally, there is the Quest Story, which Frank argues is the healthiest and the noblest kind of new narrative for the person facing severe illness to adopt. “Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.” When a person facing severe illness develops a quest narrative, she engages in an act of courage and creativity that enables her to tell a new story about her life that incorporates the disruption of her previous life narrative, accepts the parts of that narrative that are permanently lost, and designates new meaningful destinations and goals for her life.

For a Quest Story to be successful, Frank writes that it needs to be what he calls a “good story.” A good story” is one that is honest about the past and what’s been lost, while also setting forth a new direction in which the subject’s goal is to “rise to the occasion” that has been created by the changed reality – including the losses and new challenges. The Quest Story that is also a good story . . . meet[s] suffering head on . . ., accepting the illness and seeking “to use it” so that it propels the subject into a quest to create meaning and goodness within a new and unexpected framework that couldn’t have been anticipated before the arrival of the illness.

There’s another part of the challenge of embracing a Quest Story that Frank discusses that I think is important to mention here. He writes that a surprising number of the patients he works with use some version of the metaphor of being shipwrecked to describe their experience of being confronted with the news of their serious illness or new disability. He writes:

Almost every illness story I have read carries some sense of being shipwrecked by the storm of disease, and many use this metaphor explicitly. Extending this metaphor describes storytelling as repair work on the wreck. The repair begins by taking stock of what survives the storm. The old map may now be less than useful, but it has hardly been carbonized. Disease happens in a life that already has a story, and this story goes on, changed by illness but also affecting how the illness story is formed. (p. 54)

What stands out to me in this quote is that if the moment we’re living in is calling upon us to develop a Quest Story, Frank reminds us that that task will involve identifying which parts of our shipwrecked narrative are truly lost, and which parts are still intact and are going to be important components of a successful Quest Story, a “good story.”

One thing that’s clear to me now as much as any other time in my life: I need a narrative to operate within in order for my life to feel meaningful and worthwhile. I need a new personal life narrative – a mythic story of Maurice’s life – because of this election. I’ve come to accept that this election in particular is that personal, that huge, for me, and that the narrative wreckage I’m experiencing is literally on par with some of the worst narrative-wreck-moments I’ve experienced in my life, including the sudden and traumatic loss of my father when I was 18. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Beyond my personal need for a new, good, functional life narrative, progressives in this country collectively need a new organizing narrative that gives meaning and purpose, and a sense of hope, to guide and focus our activism and provide us with an emotional, psychological, and even spiritual bedrock that can give us inner calm and strong faith in our vision. What is that narrative? I still don’t know.

But. Frank’s work on narrative wreckage and illness feels really useful to me right now. Listening to him, I feel a little bit more clarity and hope. His writing says to me that even if we are currently stuck in Restitution Stories and Chaos Stories – and I am definitely still shifting back and forth between those two a lot – our aim should be towards a Quest Story. I can picture getting to a Quest Story for my personal life narrative. I don’t know what it looks like, but Frank helps me remember that it will still include a lot of the elements of my pre-Trumpocalypse personal operating narrative.

The same applies to progressives in America. Frank reminds us that despite this shipwreck (or earthquake, or whatever you want to call it), we have a lot of maps and assets that have survived intact. That includes the religious, moral, and historical wisdom of the Jewish people, which given the devastations and crises Jews have survived over many centuries, is probably more prescient than we realize. It includes the remarkable social progress that African-American leaders and organizations have brought into being in our society through many decades of creative organizing, moral suasion, inspiring preaching, and inspiring leadership. It still includes countless lessons learned and battles won by progressives throughout American history. Trump’s win doesn’t erase the power of MLK. Or Stonewall. Or Cesar Chavez. Or Harriet Tubman. Or even the fact that, as Jon Stewart recently put it, the same country that elected Trump also elected Obama twice.

That said, some things have been permanently lost in this shipwreck, and identifying them and letting them go is, according to Frank, part of what makes the difference between working with a dysfunctional operating narrative or developing a healthy Quest Story. At this moment I’m not sure what those things are, but I expect that’ll become clearer.

I’ll close out this post with some early thoughts about what some elements of a new Quest Story might look like for progressives. In order for a new, shared progressive narrative to be what Frank calls “a good story,” I think it needs to include a moral imperative to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors” (Lev 19:16) and to be our brothers and sisters keepers (Gen 4:9). For me, as a white Jewish man with a middle class job and a graduate degree, my freak out over Trump, while intense, frightening, and excruciating, does not include the sudden dread that my cousins or school mates might be deported. It doesn’t include the threat of a national registry for people of my religion (though I’ve signed a pledge to register as a Muslim if such a policy is attempted, and I hope others will do likewise). My trauma and disorientation doesn’t include what millions of women in this country now have to face in the form of increased fear of consequence-free sexual assault, nor am I stuck suddenly having to wonder whether in a couple years my marriage to my beloved partner will be reversed. I’m not saying that as a Jew I’m scot free – not by any means. For the first time in at least 20 years, I’ve been on the direct receiving end of anti-Semitic hate speech, and many of my rabbinic colleagues have described the same. Shit got real for me, for sure, but I’m less in the cross-hairs of the most aggressive and threatening aspects of the angry right wing than a lot of my neighbors. Anyway, my point is that a Quest Story for progressives needs to include a mandate to stand up for the most vulnerable and viciously targeted groups in our society, now and going forward, and not just for the less vulnerable to stand up for the most vulnerable, but for all of us who share these values to stand up for each other.

I’m also guessing that while a Quest Story that works will need to motivate an organized and honorable defense of the vulnerable, it will also need to motivate organized and honorable efforts to try to connect with and have transformative experiences with Trump supporters. I say “with” because I do believe there’s a role in a new progressive Quest Story for insisting on the humanity of our neighbors who went for Trump and for trying to better understand their needs, hopes, and fears, and yet there’s also a need to hold firm to the convictions we hold that bigoted and dehumanizing beliefs don’t get a free pass under the banner of economic insecurity or perceived cultural disenfranchisement. Perhaps this looks something like MLK’s core civil rights message, which never wavered in its determination to advance the rights of African-Americans, but which invited white Americans to join in the creation of a society of equals and insisted that we would all be – and it hurts to use this phrase but I will – stronger together in this new vision.

I’m out of steam, so I’m going to stop writing now. If you read this, thanks. If you have ideas about what a healthy Quest Story might look like, I’m very interested.

Note #1: I need to get back to this and add in some citations for works that I’ve quoted or referenced. Sorry not to have done that just yet.

Note #2: I want to thank my teacher from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Dr. Barbara Breitman, in whose course on pastoral counseling we read The Wounded Storyteller and discussed these ideas at length.

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