Meaning, Uncertainty and Narrative Evolution

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By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC

Some readers may be familiar with one of the many versions of the story of a farmer whose neighbors feel he is the luckiest man they know because of his prized stallion. When the horse jumps the corral and escapes, however, his neighbors are sure he is unlucky, but when it returns accompanied by half-a-dozen wild horses, they again see him as the luckiest among them. They change their minds once more when his oldest son falls and breaks his leg while trying to ride a wild mare – marveling at how unlucky he is, but when the king’s army arrives and conscripts each family’s oldest son for the army, and they do not take the farmer’s injured boy, the neighbors once again believe he is the luckiest man they know. And so it goes.

We humans are meaning-making creatures and the meanings we make emerge from our experiences, beliefs, values and views of the world. While it may be easy to embrace the idea that the caterpillar’s end of the world is the butterfly’s new beginning, it is a somewhat more complex move to observe ourselves jumping to conclusions as we attempt to make meaning of events before they have fully unfolded and their consequences are clear. We are quick to want to (or think we) understand what the diagnosis, recovery, new job, lottery win, new relationship, promotion, election, divorce, or death of a loved one means. We want to know. We are comfortable with certainty, which, despite the illusory comfort it may bring, closes down our curiosity, imagination and sense of capital “P” Possibility.

“We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always
hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty.”

– Pema Chödrön

This yearning for certainty – for stable, secure knowledge – is well-intentioned. We want to feel safe, for our loved ones to feel safe, and knowing what this event, person or sound means helps us. Narrative healing asks us to recognize that things change, that certainty is illusory and that meaning is not inherent in events, but that we do indeed “make” it – we confer meaning; we get to choose. Narrative healing invites us into conversation and relationship with curiosity, possibility, imagination, the inconceivable, the unknown. What do you mean we’re cutting back on bloodletting and won’t be importing any more leeches!?

External circumstances change; if we’re fortunate, or intentional, our perspectives evolve – broadening, deepening, or both. As our circumstances and perspectives shift, our narratives evolve. It’s not that we don’t know anything, but rather that the quality of our knowing changes. We are open to knowing that our current knowing may be the caterpillar’s and we learn to be increasingly all right with this. We enjoy the butterfly’s view as well. We’re increasingly less inclined to ascribe meaning to our neighbors’ or our own lives based on the most recent event. We learn to embrace paradox.

                                                …. Now we talk
about everything, incessantly,
our moans and grunts turned on a spit
into warm vowels and elegant consonants.
We say
plethora, demitasse, ozone and love.
We think we know what each sound means.

                                                        – Dorianne Laux

Narrative healing is one way that we make meaning in our lives. To the extent that we allow ourselves to be open, vulnerable and uncertain as we long for and endeavor to make meaning, our narratives can evolve and we can continue our healing journey toward wholeness.

_____

Chödrön, Pema. Comfortable With Uncertainty.  Boston: Shambhala, 2002.

Laux, Dorianne. “Each Sound.” What We Carry. Rochester, NY: BOA, 1994.

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