May 16, 2016
By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC
A traditional narrative arc – whether onstage, onscreen or on the pages of a book – often includes an exposition, in which we learn some background information about what has happened already – a pre-story or prequel, if you will; followed by rising action, in which conflict is clarified and intensified, finally reaching a peak in the climax, after which climactic ramifications emerge in the falling action,and loose ends are tied together and resolved in thedenouement.
While this traditional arc was not necessarily smooth and has by no means disappeared, it is no longer the only trajectory available to storytellers; modern and postmodern writers have shifted what we can expect to capture the far less predictable and more complex narratives that we experience in our own lives. More specifically, our healing narratives tend far less toward arcs and more toward zigging and zagging.
Thomas Crum, in The Magic of Conflict, refers to conflict as “an interference pattern of energies” that is “… natural; neither positive nor negative, it just is” (p. 49). As we heal, and write the narrative of our healing, we are called again and again to come to terms with what is – which according to Jon Kabat-Zinn is at the very core of healing.
So, whether we define our conflict as arising between some illness, injury or loss and the way our body and mind were before it emerged, or between our desire for things to be other than how they are – other than what is, Crum and Kabat-Zinn are telling us that the conflict is neither positive nor negative – it just is, and that we can’t truly heal unless we accept that it is in our life.
At the intersection of literary art and narrative healing it is helpful, then, to consider conflict as that which arises naturally between energy patterns – amid injury or illness we experience pain; and drama as the story we choose in our response to pain, which causes suffering. Said in reverse, pain arises, often beyond our control, amid conflict; suffering arises as a consequence of the story we choose, which we often can control, about the pain.
The widely known Serenity Prayer is, in many ways, a sturdy bridge along this path of pain and suffering: grant me the serenity to accept the [naturally arising conflict and inherent pain] I cannot change; the courage to change the [story that increases my suffering] I can; and the wisdom to tell the difference [between the what is of pain and my story of suffering.
Our modern and postmodern lives do not lend themselves to easily identifiable narrative arcs even under the best of circumstances (whether or not our ancestors’ traditional or pre-traditional lives ever truly lent themselves to this literary construction). Under any circumstances we need to know that things are rarely if ever fully exposed, that this particular rising action may be just one among many – to be followed by a series of just-as-inconclusive climaxes, and that any falling action and denouement may leave more questions than answers and an array of apparently still unraveling loose ends. We need to know that healing is both possible and necessary with things just as they are.
We need to know, in the words of Atul Gawande, that “[w]e have room to act, to shape our stories,” in a way that heals.
Crum, Thomas F. The Magic of Conflict. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Ph.D. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Delta-Dell, 1990.
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan-Henry Holt, 2014.