Rembrandt did over 40 self-portraits. In 1629, early in his career, the young artist painted himself with plumed beret, cocky, as if he knew he was about to conquer the world with his talent. Decades later, in 1669, Rembrandt approached the end of his life. In one of his last self-portraits, we see the artist with a face battered and etched by the years, a history of losses painfully evident. The rash confidence is long gone, perhaps replaced by wisdom and spiritual insight. The artist portrayed an integrated story of his life.
The self is made up of many stories. I will sketch some for you to think about in terms of your life and what makes your identity.
- The Lazy story this is life lived but not thought about. Maybe others are blamed and the self ‘excused’ but there is little depth or insight.
- The Trauma story is a scar, possibly a story that will ‘not turn off’. Think about the war veteran or survivor of DV who is plagued by nightmares.
- The Avoided story is what we refuse to see and tell. It is frozen, but has a lasting influence as it were ‘murmuring in the background.’
- The Strong story in which we have faced daunting challenges but overcome and gained confidence in ourselves.
- The Messy story when we can find no explanation for senseless suffering. Perhaps the loss of a child. John and Ruth Harvey, only daughter went as a missionary to Africa, died in her 30’s of a hidden melanoma.
- Subversive story which undermines all other stories, perhaps even the God story.
- The Problem story in which all attention is taken up by a seemingly impossible problem.
- The Loss story is one of enduring grief.
- The Dark story from our shadow side of self.
What stories best capture aspects of your life story? Discuss for five minutes.
How do we Re-author problem stories?
“How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?” wrote Leonard Cohen in his song Beautiful Losers.
I think is important to discover, understand, and accept the past, but—to state the obvious—the past is past and cannot change. We can change how it is seen, perhaps adapting emotionally and accepting what happened. But the present, through a capacity for choice, can open a door to a different future. It is never ‘too late’ to change how we tell the story.
Theologian Jurgen Moltman asserted that God is the ground of freedom from the past and the possibility of the new; the future is anticipated in hope; it is in the process of coming.[i]
How do we find a new story?
Potentially, there are many obstacles to finding a new story. Practically, lives can become “cluttered,” leaving no space in which to consider a different future. One solution is to have a garage sale to get rid of the excess items.[ii] Or Gum Tree_ something I am doing at the moment. This is necessitated by the possibility of moving to smaller accommodation. But it can also be accomplished mentally. You can make a list of activities that no longer have any meaning or that fail to express your values. It then becomes possible to think about how to let go of those activities.
It is also possible to be “stuck” in a past story. This is one way of understanding grief. It often involves attempting to hold on to a story that a person has been living, while that story has inevitably changed. There is more potential when a narrative is open and there can be a release of the control story.[iii]
I will now suggest a practical approach.
Narrative therapy developed in Australia over the last 2-3 decades. I have encouraged you to identify your dominant story.[iv] Is it a problem story which has become dominant? Other stories may remain neglected, staying in the background. In that case, be alert to unexpected or unique outcomes that will open up other story lines,[v] possibly with more potential, and can result in creative outcomes.
Angela came for spiritual counsel. She was in her late fifties and blaming herself for a broken relationship: “It’s my fault that Thomas had an affair and left me for a colleague at work. I was no longer attractive. I gained some weight last winter and went up a dress size. He was right to leave me!”
There was an obvious aspect of her hidden learning related to body image. She showed limited insight. She added:
“This is an old story for me. My father left my mother and eventually everyone I love leaves me.”
This was Angela’s dominant story. It carried meaning about why important people left her. The next step for Angela might be to think of times when the dominant story did not control how she felt about herself.
Angela remembered when she graduated from a course in fashion design. She felt proud of her achievement: “I stuck with it, and the subjects weren’t easy.” She thought for a moment longer: “Last week I asked my boss for a raise. I felt good that I was ‘brave’ enough to do that.”
Noticing different stories allows new themes to come to the fore. Angela could see some value in her creative and courageous actions. They opened up new possibilities for her life story, in opposition to the body-image script that led to her feeling despair and believing a surface explanation about the loss of her relationship.
You might notice that unique outcomes are already a story—an alternative story that can “scaffold” a new, re-authored story. It is a start. It is reassuring to recognize that the different story has already been performed, although not on a regular basis. Thus, it is possible. Noticing can give confidence in living a different life script. Angela thought about her story line of being creative and confident: “I feel it’s a different me. One I like!”
How do we see a new future? Pannenberg a leading 20th century theologian argued that to be human is to be open to the world and to God.[vi] We have a creative freedom and receptivity. This freedom is in human nature, our radical openness, which makes it necessary for us to develop a spiritual culture alongside a material culture.[vii] We see this in art, music, justice, morality, and spirituality.
The new story is in part a future story. God presents himself to the world as a story, yes think about Exodus and other Bible stories: “In this way God ‘captures the imagination’.
What does it look like when someone uses their imagination and creates a new life story? Naturally, this will take many creative forms. Robyn Cadwallader literally wrote a new life story. She is an academic who, after completing a PhD and teaching at a university, had her first novel, The Anchoress, published.[viii] The novel, which set in the Middle Ages, has won several literary awards. The anchoress is a 17-year-old girl who devotes her life to God. She is shut in a small cell, seven by nine paces, at the side of a village church. The author, Robyn, lives outside Canberra with Alan who she describes as “a lovely man, two dogs, two alpacas and a host of birdlife.”
Another example is the Raging Grannies organization. Its members are older women who have changed their relationship to society. Linda Caissie did interviews with members of their “gaggles.” These women resisted traditional gender roles and challenged ageist stereotypes. This included defining self, reclaiming “old,” taking public space, the strength of women’s community, and the power of humour (through costumes, props, and satirical plays) and music. Being older helped them use a sense of freedom from expectations. This is excused by being “batty,” as one said: “You’re a bit batty anyway, so you get away with it.”[ix] This group is now international and has proven to be effective for social change.
Conclusion: As I look back on my life, I am aware that I have been overambitious. This has been at some cost to me and my family. I have thought about whether there were indicators of this theme in previous generations. My great-great-grandfather was very successful in business. He lived near Boston, served in a number of influential political positions, and accumulated substantial wealth. Interestingly, his only daughter, Charlotte, my great-grandmother, was a philanthropist and gave everything away. At the end of her life, there was not enough money left to send my father to college (he became an army officer instead). I have wondered whether my drive to succeed may be motivated by a desire to “restore my family’s fortunes.” I know that sounds absurd, but it resonates and may be an indication of a hidden life story. I am more reluctant to acknowledge the generous way Charlotte lived, since it cost my father a chance at a college education, but as I think of it her example has also been important to me. As I get older I think a lot about the ethical use of my prosperity. I am shifting from the model of wealth gatherer to thoughtful giving. A different but more meaningful story.
[i] Jurgen Moltmann, Harvey Cox, Langdon Gilkey, Van A. Harvey, and John Macquarrie, The Future of Hope: Theology as Eschatology, ed. Frederick Herzog (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 45.
[ii] David Maitland, Aging as Counterculture: A Vocation for the Later Years (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991), 141.
[iii] Kenyon et al., Storying Later Life, 242.
[iv] Michael White and David Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (New York: Norton, 1990), 29.
[v] Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities (New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 1996), 67–68.
[vi] Wolfhart Pannenberg, What is Man? trans. Duane A. Priebe (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1962 German, 1970 English), 1–13.
[vii] Pannenberg, What is Man?, 22; see also Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1985).
[viii] Robyn Cadwallader, The Anchoress: A Novel (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2015).
[ix] Linda Caissie, “The Raging Grannies: Narrative Construction of Gender and Aging,” in Kenyon et al., Storying Later Life,131.