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Homo Narratus: On Stories and Freedom
In Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson writes about the empowering nature of multiple narratives that people sometimes construct for our lives. The ability to construct different versions of the same major events or turning points in our lives enables us to see the power we have in making meaning for ourselves. And in CHOOSING which of these narratives will ultimately give meaning to our experiences, we discover our own agency, our freedom.
In what Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot calls “The Third Chapter” of our lives, men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 have the opportunity to reassess their lives, look back into the past in order to make a new future. We get to rethink, reassess and retell in new ways the stories of our childhood that we once thought were set in stone. During times of transition, when all of our foundations are crumbling, we get to rebuild the edifice of our lives with the same bricks, but different mortar and structure.
We can look at the people who hurt us or left us and forgive them because we have hurt or left or left others ourselves and we know what compelled us to do so. We can go back and look at our childhood and see our parents with softer, kinder, less judgmental eyes, now that we are older than they were when they raised us and aware of all of the mistakes we made along the way. And we can reassess the stories we have told our children about themselves.
I have always been over-protective of my daughter Allison. When she was 3 days old, she was diagnosed with a heart defect. During a routine check, the pediatrician heard a murmur which indicated a ventricular septal defect. (VSD) This meant that during the first eight weeks of fetal development, when her heart was being formed, something occurred which left an opening in the ventricular septum, or dividing wall between the two lower chambers.
In the months that followed, we watched over her every breath and took her monthly to a pediatric cardiologist who performed an echo cardiogram, ran an EKG and listened intently to her heart beat. We were told to be patient, that there were three possible scenarios that could happen: she might be able to live with the defect and manage it by modifying her behavior, she might need open heart surgery, or the hole could close and resolve itself.
On our eighth visit, when Allison was eight months old, my husband and I sat anxiously watching as the cardiologist listened to her heart for what seemed like a longer time than usual. Finally, he looked up at us with a huge smile on his face.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said, somewhat cautiously.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well there’s no murmur. It may be that the heart healed itself.”
An echo cardiogram confirmed this. My little baby girl’s heart had developed on its own and autonomously closed the hole between the two chambers. She would suffer no effects from this and from that moment on, had a perfectly healthy heart. I did however, always watched over her very closely. The first months of her life, when we worried about her survival, when we had to keep her from other children for fear she’d catch a cold, when I didn’t return to work until she was three because I was too scared to leave her with anyone else set the pattern of over-protection for me
that was very difficult to overcome.
One day when she was five years old, I overheard Allison say to a playmate, “I was born with a hole in my little heart. I had a heart defect.” It always made me wonder how she had internalized her VSD story and how she may have connected it to my need to keep her close to me at all times.
This morning while writing and thinking about narratives and the roles they play in our lives, the phone rang and it was Allison, 26 years old, walking to work in Boston after working out at the gym. An independent woman with a great job and enrolled in an MBA program at night, Ali and I have grown closer now that we live apart.
“I’m writing about you today, Ali,” I told her. “You remember that when you were a little girl you had a heart defect?”
“Sure,” she said. “I was born with a hole in my heart.”
“Yes, but that’s not the important part of the story. What matters, Ali, is that you healed yourself. You closed the hole, you made your body do what it needed to do.”
“But, Ma, I was only an infant,” she said dismissively
“Yes,” I said. “You were an infant. A strong, beautiful infant with a will to live. And you found the power to heal yourself. Always remember that. That’s who you are.”
I don’t know whether Ali ever consciously thinks about the fact that she had a heart defect 26 years ago. I don’t know if she’s ever connected it to my over-protection which she resented during her teen-age years. By re-framing the heart defect narrative, I am recasting my daughter not as the victim of a random occurrence in the womb, as someone I need to shelter and protect, but as a strong,powerful woman who is an agent of her own growth and healing. I hope she will choose this version of her heart defect story and that will use it as she composes the rest of her life.
And maybe even more poignant, is the way this version of the story re-frames me and how I see myself as Ali’s mother — not as someone who needs to protect her but as someone who can help her see her own inner resources.
We can break free from old narrative structures that have imprisoned our minds and stifled our spirits and limited the possibilities for relating to others in our lives – the victim narrative, the invalid narrative, the addiction narrative, the hero on a white horse coming the rescue narrative, the lone ranger narrative, the I don’t need anybody but myself narrative – and recast ourselves in different more life affirming roles in complex and gloriously diverse and dynamic relationships with one another.
Homo narratus. That’s what we human beings are. The ability to reassemble our random experiences into stories is what separates us from animals. We tell stories in order to live. There are some who believe that we can’t help but tell stories – that we are hard-wired that way.
But what we can control is what stories we tell about our lives, and in the very act of choosing from the multiple narratives, we can discover our freedom.
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