the stories we tell and keep

my whole story

I started this blog post a while ago. Today, there is a new moon in Leo and Leo season has started. It’s a little easier for me to write about such deep spiritual and emotional matters since things have lightened up a bit (although the house these Leo transits are going through is not a light one (8th house)). For the first time, I was considering how this will be received and it was a bit painful to come back to this topic, since it’s a very personal one for me. It was like reviewing my scars and feeling a little phantom pain.

Still, this is really meant to be a conversation. I can only write about what I know and experience, and maybe you have a different experience or knowledgebase. Either way, I’d love to know what you think in the comments.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13, verses 1 through 3

It’s wedding season so most of us have heard what is called “The Love Chapter” from the Bible’s New Testament. But it was only yesterday that the first three verses really made sense to me.

Simply put: there are a lot of people with good intentions about how to help others in the spirituality realm, but the love is lacking. Instead of promoting healing through grace, it further hurts and sounds like a racket.

I had a bit of a tweetstorm that was implicitly inspired by someone else’s tweets. I think now I was triggered by the verb usage, not the noun, but it’s still in this vein of spirituality and personal development that I’m not really flowing in.

As I stated in that thread, Chiron stationed retrograde yesterday, in Pisces. That’s a five-month long transit. Chiron is the wounded healer, so a retrograde transit, especially in intuitive, spiritual Pisces, is going to be pretty powerful.

Retrograde transits–where planets look like they are moving backwards in the sky–are about reviewing, resting, realizing, realigning, recovering, restoring–you get the idea. So this particular transit is about going back and healing old wounds. The idea of jettisoning old versions of ourselves or old “stories” will probably come up.

Tell Me Your Story

So there’s been this persistent idea that, as a writer, I really take great offense at, and it’s one you may have heard: drop the story. I’m a writer and storyteller by trade, so when I initially hear that, I’m like, excuse me?

The idea behind is really just about living in the moment, not in the past, not in the future, yeah yeah yeah. It’s not a bad idea, even if it’s a cliched and trite one. But words matter, and I want to make sure that we, especially I, use the right words and concepts.

My first impulse come from this Joan Didion quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” Stories and narratives are who we are. Oral histories of who we have been, what we have been through, what our ancestors have been through–we are living stories, still being unfolded. And I think this is beautiful, in all its gore and grace.

Transformation involves having a “before”–and many times, I feel that this process ends up being shortcut or circumvented because it’s messy and unglamourous. Even I want to fast forward through the struggle and the disappointments and the muck. And as I right there, I’m encouraging myself to glory the gory middle of the stories I live.

Stuckness and Struggles

Dropping old selves, identities, stories, etc.–even snakes don’t do this. It’s a gradual process, the shedding of old kin. The word “drop” is what upsets me. Yes, this is a case of semantics, but I’ll come back to this idea.

For example, it’s been a really tough time for me here in Florida, both financially and socially. I have some very persistent Venusian problems–or at the very least, I have a very long saga of trying to establish a sense of community and security here, which you could also call Cancerian and Capricornian problems.

Grad school was pretty traumatic–lots of rejection, betrayal, hurt, and my feeble ways for me to be heard and understood backfiring on an exponential scale. That’s a big part of my story. And then the aftermath of homelessness, losing my car twice, being in abusive housing situations–stability has been a very elusive thing for me, and as a Capricorn with a Cancer moon, it was living my worst nightmares on a daily basis.

Right now, though, it’s been almost two months since I’ve had a car. It still kinda stings, but with time, the sting is fading. My housing situation isn’t ideal, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m not in contact with anyone from grad school.

In this moment, no one is abusing or taking advantage of me here. I’m not in fear of my life. As I write this, I’m watching my favorite people on YouTube share their spiritual wisdom–it’s become a tradition of how I spend my Sundays now.

I’m “fine.”

I put “fine” in scare quotes because there are still things I want to accomplish (surprise! a Capricorn with goals!)–not just lofty things, but just basic things, like paying my bills on time, building up my freelance business, having local friends. I deserve all those things and more.

But there was still inordinate amounts of trauma. Did I have any post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? I’m not sure. I’ve never been diagnosed. If I did, I do not have any symptoms right now. But to think that the shit I went through has absolutely no impact on how I’m viewing my life right now just because I’m living in the moment doesn’t ring true to me. There’s still some healing that could and should occur, maybe even in ways that I can’t fully see yet. But I try to do my best–and honestly, that is enough. I trust that the Universe will reveal whatever else needs to be healed when I am ready.

But let’s say, that on this road to wholeness, I continued to talk about the horrible places I live. If I was talking to a friend about it for the 30th time, and they told me to drop the story, I’d be deeply offended. It doesn’t really leave me with something else to do instead of re-telling this story. I’m offended and now I want to just drawn inward, which usually is not going to help me to talk about something else–whether it’s because my friend is just tired of hearing it, or if it’s because my friend can sense that holding onto this isn’t helping me anymore.

How We Talk About Pain and Struggle

Either way, in my opinion, it’s phrases like dropping the story, poverty consciousness, and victim mentality that are ultimately pejorative and not very helpful. Maybe they were meant to be diagnostic terms, or even empowering terms, but to me, they are just shortcuts and spiritual bypass that do not deal with the larger stories that have been going on for millennia and need to be challenged and transformed. These catchy terms do not deal with the fact that I’ve sustained prolonged trauma that even if my situation changes, my psyche can still be stuck in another house, in a shameful moment in class, in that key moment of pain.

Spiritual folks could use good, large doses of both sociology and psychology so that they can understand why individuals and groups of people do what they do.

Maybe this is due to the Age of Reason, but a lot of Western spirituality is so heavy on personal responsibility, as if we all live on our own little islands and never interact. There’s a reason why I can give such perfect advice for others but I can’t really drag myself out of my own mire of despair. I’m going to venture  to say that that’s how humanity is set up–it’s a team sport.

In light of this, I see a lot of these buzzy terms have no real connection to the fact that we live in oppressive systems such white supremacy, patriarchy, antiblackness, homophobia, transphobia, abelism–systems that hold us back from being our true selves, systems that wound and traumatize us. This can also look like generational trauma and wounds, pains and struggles inherited from our ancestors. I rarely hear spiritual teachers and healers talk about this. Someone may be stuck in the past because of some systemic ill or a generational trauma, and the person seeking understanding and healing gets victim blamed.

On the positive side, this also means when individuals get freed from a personal struggle, there are ripple effects that can be seen and felt within their families, communities, ethnic groups, and beyond.

Future generations can be freed.

Sidenote: This makes me question what we use spirituality for. If so much of what we are dealing with has to do with people we may have never met, or actions from hundreds of years ago, what are we doing to systemically change things? Personal development has been so key in helping individuals, and sure–eventually, individuals become groups and there can be systemic change. But when use buzzwords that limit our point of view about what individuals do, we are only looking at a sliver of what’s possible for not only personal healing but what beauty queens all over want: world peace.

The Psychology of Trauma

So what is trauma? Here is a definition of what psychological trauma from the Sidran Institute, which is an educational group that helps others learn about trauma.

[A] traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope, and leaves that person fearing death, annihilation, mutilation, or psychosis. The individual may feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss.

There are coping strategies for psychological trauma, like avoidance and numbing, but I want to posit that when we share our stories and we are stuck, then that could possibly be a sign of trauma. It’d be helpful to think that this person doesn’t want to be stuck in a place of past pain, and talking about is a way to move towards a place of healing and wholeness. There’s a reason why talk therapy works.

Trauma is real. I helped with research on trauma in children for a few years. Trauma as a diagnosis almost made it into the DSM-V, but it presents itself in so many different forms, it was hard to pin down to a set of universal symptoms. This larger understanding of trauma and how it affects people–both physically and emotionally–is missing from the spiritual waters I swim in.

Why Don’t We Want to Hear Stories?

So, if we dismiss people telling their stories, we have to think about why we don’t want to hear them.

My experiences have been that people just get tired of hearing it and suffer from empathy exhaustion. Since I was in grad school, I have had to ask for help multiple times, for years, with diminishing returns. I’ve already written about some reasons why this happened, and I think empathy exhaustion is one of them.

Another reason is this idea of people just wanting to focus on positive things. They are positivity junkies that do not want to see someone else suffering with their basic needs. Love and light, y’all!

Yet another reason is just people just don’t want to be bothered. Maybe it’s due to a subconscious fear that someone’s bad times are contagious. There’s also just the impatience of walking with someone through their dark night of the soul or valley of the shadow of death. It’s messy and many times you can’t pull someone out of his or her bad spiral. So we turn to axioms and pithy sayings, hoping that somehow, people will just wake up because we asked them to.

“Drop your story.”  It really sounds like the people who tell those suffering from depression to just “snap out of it.” Hopefully, dear reader, you know that by telling someone to snap out of depression is way worse than not saying anything at all.

And usually, it’s not your job to do that, to pull anyone out. There’s something very powerful and transformative about being present, about just being there, about listening to someone tell their story, about not trying to solve anything.

Watch Thich Nhat Hanh talk with Oprah Winfrey about compassionate listening and how it can alleviate suffering.

Just by listening, you can be a catalyst for  transformative healing. You don’t have do anything except hold space and listen with compassion.

Whether we’re operating from impatience, fear, or judgment, we have to treat people’s stories, however old and worn out, as sacred. Hearing someone else’s story is an honor, not something to take for granted. If someone is stuck, listening to them re-tread stories should alert you that this person has been traumatized. You don’t need to cajole them into healing. You know that a journey to wholeness is usually a long one.

Re-Writes and Re-Frames

Finally, if you’re asking someone to drop something–a story, an old self, an identity, remember that nature does not like a vacuum. What are you inviting them to pick up? What are you inviting them to write instead?

Maybe we can invite people, invite ourselves, to re-write or re-frame our stories. The events of what happened cannot change and many times cannot be forgotten. But maybe the theme can be changed, or even a larger story arc can be created.

Let’s take my story for example. It’s a typical Capricorn story of struggle and triumph. It can be hard while you are in the middle of the story to even see what the story arc is. I could easily think that my story is just going to be never-ending struggle.

And that’s where we can hold up mirrors of hope for each other. We can let each other really see ourselves for who we are: adorned with love.

We may have been pushed face down in the muck of shame, sorrow, and humiliation, but we can be lifted up in the bright glory of grace, mercy, love, and redemption.

Erasing the beginning of our stories only dishonors our pain and all we’ve gone through. Tell it all. Find people who you can trust who will listen with compassion. Find people who can trust you so you can listen with compassion.

From the most benign to the most pernicious, stories and identities serve some sort of purpose, and it’s usually safety. It’s what we know. Going into the unknown is scary, for most people. Many times, too, people telling and re-telling stories is to actually make some sort of sense of what happened–it is a way, maybe a fumbling and awkward way, of usher in healing.

And sure, there can come to a point that the story has been fully examined, understanding has been realized, and it’s time to close the book and open a new one. That takes both patience and discernment to know when someone reaches that point. My concern is that people are jumping the gun on where that place is.

What I’m not advocating is for people to overwhelm their own boundaries and just take on a bunch of negative stuff. Honor your boundaries: there are definitely people who end up feeling like they are stuck in this emotional black hole.

If you can’t offer any more assistance, I strongly suggest telling people to go to therapy. It’s not for everyone, but especially if the therapist is trauma-informed, there can be some breakthroughs that can happen with spiritual teaching and healing is coupled with psychotherapy. Participating in a support group can also be of help.

Both Sides Now: Walking Away and Being Walked Away From

This issue comes from a deeply personal place for me. Years ago, I was dumped by a friend who thought I was too toxic and negative–but my life was in shambles. Granted, this woman really tried to be close to me way too soon and was one of those perpetually happy people. I made no apologies for my journey and have no regrets that she was no longer my traveling companion.

I’ve been on the other side as well. I had an online friend many years ago who was really stuck. She lived in a horrible living situation and was most likely clinically depressed. We were friends for years, but my own patience just ran out. There was nothing I could do.

Looking back, though, I could have done a couple of things differently. I could have limited my time talking to her and I could have just listened and tried to not fix her. Holding space for someone who is suffering and is in pain is a sacred duty, not something to be taken for granted.

What’s the Story? Who Are You?

Ultimately, I’m asking for folks to not use empty spiritual buzzwords, to be more patient and kind, to be more discerning, and to realize that the human condition is a cumulative experience.

I have many old stories that I am not living in any longer, but they are chapters in my own book of life that are sacred, that are precious, and that brought me to this place.

…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem