Sunday, November 29, 2009

"I know this much is true"

Wally Lamb's Novel, I know this much is true, offers strong support for writing personal narrative as a source of healing. The novel itself is written in the first person and thus it represents the (fictional) character's (Dominick) efforts to write his own life story and to find the meaning in his life. He struggles with twinship, mental illness, death, abuse, love, absence and loss of love, parenthood and parentlessness, anger, self destruction, sexuality, culture, religion....and all of the other issues that challenge us to combat meaninglessness and create meaning.

A central aspect of the novel is a personal narrative written by Dominick's grandfather at the urging of a priest who believes that he might find healing and personal redemption from the writing and from discussing his writing and life with the priest. Domencio puts off writing his life story for many years after the priest suggested it, and he completes his narrative just before his death. The story itself is full of self justification and pride, much of it in relation to things that Domenico might well have been ashamed of. One imagines that if he had written the story earlier and if he had worked with it, for example by discussing it with the priest, he might have found the transformation and healing he was in need of and perhaps seeking.

As it is, the narrative he wrote becomes a central aspect of the healing of his grandson and namesake--Dominick--who eventually finds the lessons he needs for his own growth and healing in his grandfather's story. The novel is long (and wonderful). Most of us don't have the time or talent to write this kind of full life story. And, while each of our lives is rich and complex, Dominick, as a fictional character is given more challenges and more dramatic challenges than most of us. Dominick's grandfather also has a life that is more dramatic and externally complex than most, but his narrative is much shorter.

We don't have to write novels, or even 75 page narratives, to participate in the growth and healing that writing autobiographical stories can provide. Short vignettes, little pieces of our lives considered one at a time, and in relation to one another can be a powerful vehicle for self transformation. Reading helps, too.

I invite you to write short narratives of your own and post them as comments here. Better yet, start your own blog and write your personal stories there. Link them here so that I and others can read them and grow with you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dream: The Gray Goose

A few weeks ago I had a dream. The actual visual imagery was not as vivid or powerful as in many of my dreams, but the verbal and then tactile/kinesthetic experience was very clear. I was in a sled race in the snow. The sled seemed like the sort that would be used with a dog team, but I have no memory of dogs in the dream and it seemed more that I was pushing the sled (which was perhaps reddish orange in color and which now, several weeks later reminds me in color and structure of the Golden Gate Bridge [which I was planning to walk across as I usually do in visiting San Francisco where I was to go the week after the dream]). At some point, I turned off the main trail to take a break and perhaps drink some water. I then heard a voice say—“Keep going, there is something you need ahead”. I did keep on for quite a while, although I was beginning to worry about being out of the race for so long and falling behind. I eventually came to a small lake (again the visual imagery is not powerful), but the voice said something like “There, catch that goose. You need her”. I was surprised, but I went to the edge of the lake and managed to scoop up this rather large grey bird. The voice then said, “Hold her tight. Don’t let her get away. Tuck her under your jacket.” I did all this, still bewildered. The voice then said, “Now she’s going to show you some affection, just relax and accept it”. At that point, I felt the goose stretch her neck a little and she began rubbing her beak gently on my neck and cheek. If the voice hadn’t prepared me for this and given me an interpretation of it, I probably would have found it mildly unpleasant and disconcerting or annoying, but as it was, I was able to experience it as something (mildly) positive. I then thought or said, “I have spent too much time away from the race and I am going to lose.” The voice said, “No you need to have the goose with you. She will be of help. When you get back to the race, you will be at the top of a big hill. With the goose’s help you will be able to make it directly to the top of the next hill and you will not have to go down into the valley. This will put you ahead in the race and it will give you a chance to win.” The next moment, I was indeed, on top of a high hill, my sled was perched on the summit in front of me and I was both holding onto the sled and clutching the gray goose tightly, still under my jacket. I seemed poised to take off for the crest of the next hill in the distance in front of me (again the visual imagery was not very vivid or clear) and then I woke up.

Two weeks later, having returned from the visit to San Francisco to see my son and grandchildren and my first ex-wife, and having told the dream to them, I was reading some novels my son had given me. The heroic, nature, masculine themes in these novels reminded me of some heroic/romantic books written in the 1920’s by James Oliver Curwood, that my father had introduced me to as a child. I had purchased a few of these books on the internet in the past few years and re-read them. I decided to send one of these to my son and I looked at them on the shelf and eliminated three of them for various reasons and decided to send him one called “the Valley of Silent Men”. It was about an adventure and love story in the Canadian Wilderness in the 1920’s as were most of Curwood’s novels. I decided to quickly read the book once more before sending it to my son. I was astounded to read, about 2/3’s of the way through the book, after the hero has been rescued by the woman he falls in love with, she speaks of the three major rivers of that part of Canada—and she says “The Athabasca is Grandmother, the Slave is Mother, and The Mackenzie is Daughter, and over them watches always the Goddess, Niska, The Gray Goose. The Gray Goose blood is in me, Jeems. I love the forests”. Throughout the rest of the novel, the hero calls his Love his gray goose, his Niska. (I did some research on the internet and discovered that in some very obscure Canadian Indian language the Canadian Goose is indeed called “Niska”).

A few weeks later I have remembered that my mother told me that as a toddler she called me the “spruce goose”, because I had a long neck and I reminded her of Howard Hughes’ giant wooden aircraft (which flew only once). The press called it the spruce goose, a derogatory name which Hughes hated. He named it the "Hercules".

I am still working on understanding and integrating the messages of this dream into my consciousness and life. It did suggest to me that I might yet complete some of my life tasks if I recognize the help I need and hold onto it tightly when it appears. That help might keep me from making an unnecessary and perhaps time- wasting descent into the “valley”, and the time and effort saved might keep me in the race. (I also had an association of an experience that occurred in Austin Texas during the year I was riding my bike everywhere and almost never got into a car. On my way home from campus there was a Creek, at the bottom of a ravine between two steep hills. To get home, I had the joy of soaring down the hill as if I was flying; followed by the very challenging task of pedaling up the steep incline on the other side. After a time, I realized that I was letting the fear and worry that I couldn’t or might not get up the hill, destroy my ability to live fully the moments of joy in racing down the hill toward the creek. It became an exercise in letting go of concerns about the future to stay in and enjoy the present. I was able to do this, by taking away any expectations or goals about the trip up the other side. I gave myself permission to get off and walk my bike up to the crest if it was too hard to pedal up. My experience of this nightly journey changed dramatically and the lesson as always served as a model to help me let go of worries about the future that destroy the enjoyment of the present.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Story of my father's Death: Version One

My father, Mike Stern, is given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He is 85 years old. He has diabetes, he has walked with pain for a number of years, his heart is not strong although he has not had a major heart attack. My father enjoys life a great deal. He loves to eat, he loves my mother and my sister and I and his granddaughter and grandson and great-grandchildren. He still likes to read, play bridge, work on the computer which he learned to do in his 70's, communicate with a few family members spread around the country and a few good friends from high school and college and even elementary school.

My father is not full of regrets about his life and he is not especially afraid to die. He is spritually oriented in a non-relgious sort of way. He believes whole-heartedly in God. He isn't sure what, if anything comes after death (at least he says this, but he may have some private beliefs which he is reluctant to share for fear that they might be questioned or belittled). He seems quite convinced that there is nothing bad likely to happen when he is dead other than never being able to eat at Galatoire's again and not seeing his great grandchildren grow up.

My father is grateful for the joy and accomplishments that he has experienced and he doesn't want to live forever. Most of my father's family has died--including his three brothers, and one of his two sisters, all three of his brothers-in-law, and all three of his sisters-in-law. Most of the men who were his best friends are dead. My father has already lost a fair amount of his competency and he can see that this is certainly going to get worse the longer he lives. He wants to die at home, he wants to be cared for as much as possible by his wife and children, with no more money spent on other kinds of care than has to be. He doesn't want painful and undignified medical procedures or long stays in the hospital.

My father was told he would have about six months to live. He had some moments of pain and some moments of fear. He went on playing bridge, enjoying food, bickering with my mother, making birthday cards on the computer. He had a lot of interest in and energy for planning his funeral and memorial service. My father involved me in this ways that represented enormous gifts to me. He asked that I invite the men's group I had been a part of for several years to help create a service for him. He requested that his ashes be scattered in a creek that he helped the men's group clean up one spring. He agreed to come to visit the site for this scattering and memorial service with the men's group during the time between his diagnosis and his death.

On a chilly Sunday afternoon, toward the end of winter, we carried him in his chair to the bank above the creek. He took a breath or two and said to the five men sitting around him, "well, men I am going to die, soon. Is there anything you want to ask me about what I feel?"

A few weeks later, a little more than six months after his diagnosis, a few days after his birthday dinner, he died at home, in his own bed. He had had little pain, no more stays in the hospital, having been attended to mostly by my mother and my sister and I (with help from hospice and some home care aides).

A few weeks after he died, about 35 people sat on the bank above the creek and eulogized and celebrated by father's life and shared some of the mourning of his death. Words from anciet Hebrew prayers and spiritual calls from Native American traidtions were chanted. Some hymns were played on a CD Player and their melodies floated out over the creek. People spoke of my father with love and affection and humor. Members of our family scattered spoonfuls of his ashes on the land and on the water. Some of them were poured into a hole we dug and we planted a young Dogwood on top of them. Many of us smiled and wept.

In this story, My father's dying is a beautiful, spritial, peaceful, and inspiring process. It is a time filled with love and caring, bravery and beauty. For me, there is a little sadness, immense gratefulness, a sense of having been loved and of having been loving. Acknowleding and being acknowledged. Responsibility lovingly and succcessfully carried out. Completion, resolution, closure, peace.

A good life come to a good end.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Death Story: Version Two

When I was a child, my parents taught me to brush my teeth every night and every morning, and at some point they taught me to use dental floss. I don't remember having any special fights about this, or any special feelings about it.

I first remember going to the Dentist when I was about six (perhaps a couple of years after I started going to the barber--but that's another story). I don't remember that being a very intense experience either. As I got older-- about 8-- I started having cavaties--which was not shocking in my family, my mother's kin all had "soft" teeth, as they said in those days, and lots of cavaties and dental work.

I do remember there being pain in the dental work--there were slow grinding, noisey drills in those days, no streaming water, and the dentist was at first reluctant to give children novocaine. It hurt. I do remember getting novocaine once or twice and I didn't like having my tongue numb, it was scary.

As I got to be about 10, I entered a phase of "super masculinity"--I went barefoot in summer even when the pavement was hot, I wore a "sheath" knife whenever I could, I went hunting and loved guns, and I took pride in being tough and not minding pain. As part of this, I became proud of my ability to have cavaties filled without crying or yelling and pretending I was indifferent to the pain.

Skip many years.

I am 38 years old. I am in the dentist's chair. He is holding my mouth open with some kind of instrument and he is saying: "Oh no! I can't believe what I am seeing. I can see the cavaties without even an X-ray. And your gums are bleeding and I haven't even started to work on them. When was the last time you went to a dentist? How often do you brush your teeth?" Do you Floss?"

I am filled with shame. Fortunately I don't have to answer his questions, because I can't speak. He is holding my mouth open with a cold metal instrument. I haven't been to a dentist for three years. I usually brush my teeth in the morning, but almost never at night. I almost never floss. (I also smoke cigars, eat lots of sweets, and drink a fair amount of wine and beer).

The dentist goes on with his exam, identifies several teeth that need filling, one or two that might need crowns and/or root canals. When he is finished examining my teeth, my mouth is full of blood and my gums really hurt. He tells me to make several appointments.

He also gives a lecture, the gist of which is that I am probably going to lose all of my teeth if I don't start brusing and flossing twice day, using oral rinses, and having my teeth cleaned twice a year. He lets me know that he is schocked my neglect of my teeth and he can't believe that someone who is middle class and has a Ph.D. could be so self destructive.

As I leave his office, I am filled with shame and fear. This is a familiar experience because I have left dentist's offices in several states over the past 15 years with the same lecture and the same feelings. I have usually only gone to each dentist once or twice, before I move, and wait a substantial amount of time before going to a new Dentist.

As I calm the fear and shame, I ask myself, "Why don't I take care of my teeth?" And more particularly why is that these dental lectures (and my parent's teachings about what happens if you don't take care of your teeth) have no effect on my behavior.

I introspect on these points for a while. I come to an insight. The fear that the dentist's evoke in me is not motivating because I am already avoding terror and the additional invitation to be fearful, only strengthens my avoidance and denial.

But what am I afraid of? I was never really afraid of the pain of going to the Dentist. And the dental experience had become much less of an ordeal than in my childhood--better anasthesia, highspeed drills, water pumped into the drill site, headphones with the stoothing music of my choice.

I also was aware and believed entirely, that if I took care of my teeth, I would have less pain, fewer cavaties, less need for dental procedures, less expense. And, when I let myself think about it, I was certainly afraid of losing teeth. So why was I finding it so hard to change my behavior?

I pushed myself to keep asking this question for a couple of days. I kept coming back to the insight that all of the fears that the dentist was quite effective in arousing in me clearly were already there but not in consciousness most of the time. But bringing them consciousness didn't seem to be doing a bit of good in getting me to follow his regime. Just as it hadn't helped when all of those other dentists said the same things and touched on the same fears.

Finally I got it. An acceptance of the fact that my teeth are perishable and are subject to decay and even mortality, meant that I had to accept my own mortality. I had been pretending that my teeth would last forever and that so would I. To brush them "religiously" was to admit that they were vulnerable. And so was I. Going to the dentist and having to confront the evidence that they in fact were decaying and deteroirating and moving toward mortality, was also evidence that my existence was also moving me toward mortality. I didn't want that consciousness of Death.

This is my Death Story number two. In this story I am terrified of dying. It is so overwhelming that I cannot face any evidence that my body has a limited life span and is wearing out. In this story, I am going to prove that I can live forever, because my body will not wear out and I don't even have to take care of it. In fact, I can abuse it. I can be overweight, I can not exercise except when I want to, I can eat and drink what I want and when I want, I can not go any medical providers. I can ignore my family inheritance of fairly early heart disease and heart attacks and fairly early cancer. I am going to live forever. The alternative is unthinkable, unimaginable and unacceptable. I can brush my teeth when I want to and I do not have to go to the Dentist until I am ready. I don't have find a meaningful way to face death because I am not going to die!

My Death Story: Version One

I am 15 years old and a Junior in High School. I have broken up with my girl friend just before the Christmas Holidays. I am very upset--I am having trouble sleeping, I am sad and tearful much of the time, I have trouble thinking about anything but her.

My parents suggest that perhaps it would be good for me to take a trip so that I will have something fun to do over the holidays. They propose that I go to visit my Uncle and his family who live in Texas. I will have to fly from New Orleans to Houston. I have never been in an airplane before.

The plan to take the trip does lift my spirits some and I agree to go. I get on board the four engine prop-jet plane and take my seat over the wing. I look out of the window and I see an enormous engine most of whose length sticks out far beyond its apparent anchoring part within the margin of the wing.

I am certain that the way the engine's placement is designed is unsafe and that the engine is likely to fall of at any moment, but certainly when the plane takes off.

I fasten my seat belt and prepare to die. Since I had never been scared at the thought of dying, I do not feel fear. Just a strong conviction that I probably will not survive the take off. As I contemplate my likely death, a wave of sadness comes over me and the thoughts that generate this sadness are related to my young age and a sense that I have not yet accomplished anything worthwhile in my life. I think that I have a lot of potential for achieving something significant and that I am going to die before I get a chance to do it.

These thoughts and the sadness stay with me as we taxi toward the runway and await our turn for take off. When it is our turn to take off, as the plane begins to move down the runway, my body is more and more filled with the sensations of acceleration, and I begin to feel some excitement as well as sadness. As the plane surges forward and suddenly leaves the ground and soars into the air, I am pressed back into my seat and I feel really excited and somehow transformed as if I have participated in a miracle.

After a few moments, the exhileration seems to fade away with the passing away of the acceleration, and I am calm, even though still looking at the cantilevered engine, surprised that it has survived the stresses of take off, and surprised that I am still alive. It still seems likely to me that the engine might fall of at any moment. Both the sadness and excitement are still with me in mild form and I do have a strong sense that I hope to survive and get to fulfill my life's potential.

In the years following this flight, I probabaly took a trip by airplane every two years until I was 30. My internal experience always paralleled my experience of that first flight, not with the same certainty that I was going to die, but rather with clear thoughts that I might well die, accompanied by the feeling of sadness generated by a judgment that I had not done anything very significant with my life.

As the years went by, my life moved ahead in many ways. I went on to love and be loved by other girls, I graduate from high school, I graduated from college, I got married, I fathered a child, I earned a doctorate. Yet every time I flew, I thought of the possiblity of dying and felt sad that I still hadn't accomplished anything that was a clear fulfillment of my own special gifts and potential.

When I was 32 years old I spent a year as an intern in clinical child psychology at The Judge Baker Guidance Center in Boston, Massachusetts. The internship involved some seminars, a few hours of individual supervision by senior psychologists and several hours a week of testing and providing psychotherapy to children.

That spring, as I was nearing the end of the internship, I made a flight to New Orleans, to be with my father who was having cancer surgery. As the plane taxied toward the runway, the usual thoughts of the possiblity of my dying as the plane took off came to me. I noted that I did not, however, feel sad. And as I thought about the absence of sadness in the post take off calm, it occured to me that the therapy I had done with the 8 or 10 children who had been assigned to me, represented a signficiant achievement and that it would not be especially tragic for me to die, since some of my potential had been fulfilled.

I should add that I was somewhat surprised by this experience, because my earlier definition of what would have constittuted fullfilling my life potential would have been a lot grander (grandiose?) and involving a lot more externally visible success. However, it was a very clear experience and I knew that some important change had occured in my life.

For several years afterwards, I continued to have that sense of facing death when I flew, but the sadness never returned.

I became more conscious or self conscious of this story, and began telling it ocassionally to people in my life. At some point, I labeled it as my death story, and took it to mean that I was quite comfortable with the knowledge that I would die someday and that I could accept that with no special sense of tragedy or loss and without fear.

It is true that I have no sense of tragedy in relation to my death. I have had a rich, full and meaningful life. I am not ready for it to be over and I am grateful for the time I have had and all that I have accomplished. I have loved and been loved, I have had joy, I have given life, I have been of help to people, and I have used many of the talents I have been blessed with.

Martha and Meaning

Martha was 96 years old when I met her. An African American woman, she lived in a one bedroom apartment in a lovely 17 story building that is rent subsidized for the elderly and handicapped residents of Philadelphia.

Martha had children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren who loved her and who visited her often. They frequently took her out and brought her to their houses as well as out into the community for shopping and entertainment. More than one of her Grandchildren tried to persaude her to live in their homes.

Martha prefered to live by herself, saying that there was too much drama in her family's lives. She enjoyed overnight visits at holidays, but after two days she always longed to get back to her own apartment. Family members also wanted her to change--what she ate, how she dressed, what medications she took or didn't take. She loved to visit them and have them visit her, but she prefered her independence and her autonomy.

Martha was in good health, although she had chronic pain from arthritis, especially in her hands. Her blood pressure fluctuated some as well--it tended to get too low. She had fallen a couple of times in her kitchen, and her family had some concern about her living alone, even though many people in the apartment building were close friends and noticed pretty quickly if Martha was having difficulties.

Martha was a deeply religious woman, and her church and God played a central role in her life. She went to a church where she had been a member for many years. The church had a van which picked her up for Sunday and Wednesday services and for various social outings. If the van wasn't available, Martha was known to wait on the corner for a SEPTA bus and get to Church on her own.

In the group therapy sessions that I led at Martha's building, she explored some of her resistances to living with family members and some of her feelings about living with so much physical pain. She also talked about the many losses in her life, the poverty of her childhood and the deprevations she lived with.

Martha's ability to live a life of serenity and peace as she approached the century mark, was centered in her deep faith that God was looking out for her and that she had a secure place in heaven when she would die.

In discussions of aging and facing death, that had a prominent place in the weekly group meetings, where many of the members were 20 or 30 years younger than Martha, she was able to provide encouragement and courage to others who lacked some of the certainty of Martha's belief. When one of Martha's best friends, 92 year old Bessie, who was also in the group, died one spring, Martha was appropriately sad, but she was able to comfort herself and others in the group, by pointing out that Bessie was as firm a believer in Jesus as she herself was, and that all of them would no doubt be meeting again in heaven.

Martha's defined the meaning of her life in religious terms and she faced death with a strong faith, culturally based and supported in her church life. She accepted the culturally provided meaning system that told her that there was a purpose in her life, and that God loved her and that there was nothing to fear in death.

There were a couple of weeks one spring, not too long after Bessie died, and when Martha herself was struggling with less physical health than usual, and when there was some talk among her family members about helping her be placed in a nursing home. At that time another level of struggle with meaning in Martha became evident.

In the group she was able to talk about her fear of going into a nursing home, her fear of dying, and her fear of dying alone. She talked about her uncertainty about what it would be like to die, and the sadness she felt at the thought of losing her life which was full and positive even at age 97. Martha talked about how lonely she sometimes felt from the loss of so many, including three of her children--one in childhood. She expressed some amazement and some pride that she had endured on the basis of her own stregnth, in spite of having had so many deprivations and disappointments in her life.

In the group session after these two meetings, Martha returned to her more secure, religious and spiritual foundation, and expressed her acceptance of the fact that she might have to go to a nursing home at some point and that she might well die there. She still preferred that to going to live with her family members. And her faith that God and Jesus would take care of her, and that she would enter paradise when she died had reemerged with full force and she was again peaceful and cheerful and able to offer comfort to others.

Some people might suggest that Martha had a loss of faith, when she was faced with a frightening threat of change that would mark a clear step closer to dying. Others might suggest that such faith is an illusion, or unreal, and that her "real" thoughts and feelings about death emerged in those two weeks of "crisis".

I would suggest that Martha simply demonstrated the very widespread truth, that in relation to the important dimensions of our lives, we all have more than one story.

Death is too awesome, too large (a Tremendum, Jung calls it), too mysterious, to be captured and tamed by any one story--culturally or individually.

I believe that both of Martha's "stories" are equally true. One is no more "real" than the other. Her religious faith is a very real source of meaning and therefore stregnth and comfort to her life. It is her dominant story and the one that she lives by most of hte time.

Martha has other stories, she doesn't always tell them, she is not always aware of them. The one that emerged when her health weakened is also there in her, and while in one sense it is less positive and more painful than the dominant story, its presence is a testimony to the complexity and richness of Existence which she shares with all of the rest of us. Her ability to tell both stories, to let the second, darker one emerge every now and then, doesn't make her less authentic or less honest. In fact it attests to the strength and fullness of her life. The strength of her religious faith is highlighted and made more precious by the acknowledged presence of other competing stories.

The group ended two years ago. I still have dinner with several members of the group every couple of months. Martha is among those attending. She is getting very close to 100, she hasn't gone to a nursing home. Her hands still hurt a lot. She still visits and is visited by her family. She still doesn't want to live with them or go to a nursing home. She still goes to Church twice a week. Martha still shares her deeply held religious faith with others in her efforts to offer them access to the same blissful meaning to life that she expeiences.

Existential Challenges to Meaning in Life

In creating our lives, in writing our life stories, we all face FOUR unavoidable Challenges. These Existential Problems have to be addressed as we attempt to establish and maintain MEANING and PURPOSE to guide us in living our lives. Our culture may provide ways of meeting these challenges which may be satisfactory to us individually-- either completely, partially, or not at all.

In writing our own life story, we have to address these Existential Challenges, whether the solutions come to us directly from our culture or we generate meaningful solutions for ourselves.

The four challenges to meaning that are part of every Human Being's Existence are:

1. DEATH. The most central and powerful challenge. We are the only form of life that we know about that has awareness that our life as lived on the earth will come to an end. How can Life be meaningful if we are going to die?

2. ALONENESS. Challenges meaningfulness because we are biologically social creatures and our societies are more and more interdependent. We each have an internal world that is unique, only directly experienciable by ourselves, never fully able to be put into words and never fully understandable by anyone else. Yet we are bioloigcally social creatures, born dependent on other people for our survival as infants and children. And we live in a world where we remain interdependent on our fellow human beings for our survival. Moreover our biology creates a yearning for emotional and physical connection with others. We are subject to deep feelings of Loneliness. How can life be meaningful if we are ultimately alone?

3. POWERLESSNESS. Human existence has meaning only if we believe that our actions effect the outcomes in our lives. Yet, we are clearly powerless over many of the forces that greatly effect our lives. We are thrown into the world with certain abilities and limitations, we are born into a place--family, social setting-- that we do not choose and that may or may not meet our needs. Events happen in our lives that we cannot control--natural disasters, social changes and disasters, bodily events, death itself. We are powerless in many things, but making responsible choices and exerting our will can make a difference. We need to believe that we have free will even though we can only influuence outcomes, not control them. How can life be meaingful when so much is outside of our control?

4. Meaninglessness. The world as we experience it is often not understandable. Events may seem to unfold out of chaos, things happening randomly or only by chance. At other times we may experience the world as goverened by fixed natural, scientifc laws that are indifferent to our individual wants and desires, our invidivdual merits. We may expeience the world as unfair, irrational, even absurd. How can life be meaningful if the world we live often appears meaningless?

As we write our life stories, we have to address the Existential challenges so that we experience life as meaningful. Then we can define our purposes and goals, we can make responsible choices, we can can act in ways that make sense to us.

When Culture Fails Us; Writing a Life Story to Create Meaning

Writing a life story is a way to explore the meaning of our life. Writing life stories is a way to create meaning in our life.

As Lao Tzu says, ultimate reality is a unified, pre-conceptual, formless, timeless, flowing, watery way (the Dao).

We humans have a mind, a knowing, cognitive, representational function, and it creates the world as we know it.

This knowing function also creates our existence, since, in part, we are who we think we are.

And it seems that in order to have a human existence, we have to have a story that is meaningful to us. (perhaps at another time we can explore what it means to have a meaningless life story).

Culture is a set of blue prints of meaning that are shared by a group of people who participate in a particular human group--tribe or society, clan or nation. Well acculturated humans derive a lot of their life's meaning from the beliefs which are provided by their culture.

A Human culture is a set of beliefs, a philosphy, a religious or spiritual outlook, a set of folktales or myths and a set of practices or behaivors which people in the culture believe in and carry out, and which give meaning to the individuals who believe and act in those shared ways.

Some Cultures teach that it is heroic deeds which define the worth of an individual and that dying in a heroic cause that is in the service of defending others is the highest form of meaning. In such a culture people will be eager to show their bravery in the face of dangers that threaten others and they may even die in the defense of their friends or tribe or state. They will find it meaningful to do so because they share in the belief system of the culture which endorses this kind of meaning.

In some other cultures meaning may be defined in terms of competence and the ability to solve problems in new and novel ways. In such cultures people may be eager to show their intelligence and creativity in order to provide new ways of doing things which are of benefit to themselves and the group.

There is usually more than one blueprint for meaning available in most cultures (there are different roles available to different individuals). In a coherent and well functioning culture, most people will find a set of meanings to guide their lives and to keep themselves well integrated and well functioning.

What happens when a particular person in a culture isn't properly taught the cultural meaning system? Or when a particular cultural system isn't well suited to an individual born into the culture (someone who has a temperment or abilities that don't fit well with the cultural meanings that are available in that social group)? Or what happens when the culture itself is in disarray, in transition, or failing to adapt well to changing conditions?

This situation creates both a challenge and an opportunity. Since we can't be healthy without finding meaning in life, we will have to find some way to create meaning or discover it outside of the culture we are being offered, if meaning isn't provided by our culture in a form we can use. This challenge may be stressful and it is also an opportunity to experience Freedom, since we are asked to use more of our own intelligence and creativity to make choices that give meaning to our lives.

Writing a life story is a way to explore the meaning of our life. Writing life stories is a way to create meaning in our life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Different Stories Lead to Different Existences

When a hurricane hits and destroys a block of houses, everyone is a victim of the storm. We didn't create the storm and we are not responsible for the losses we have suffered.

The loss and suffering require emotional processing. We need to experience the feelings that have been evoked in us by the losses and there will no doubt be suffering. In the aftermath of a sudden and unwished for upending of our lives, we will very likely be sad, angry, and scared. Each of these emotions has a meaning and purpose and requires certain responses on our part for healthy resolution (see my website at the sections on feelings for a fuller discussion of emotions and health).

The loss of a home requires changes in many of our thought structures as well. It changes our finances, our sense of security and safety, our expectations about the future, and might call into question our judgment and planning. It may erode the foundation that our sense of meaning is built upon. The need for readjustments of our inner expectations, attitudes, and beliefs also requires resolution and our sense of purpose.

Following a major upheavel such as losing one's house to a storm, there will be major individual differences in how long this kind of processing and resolution will take. Also people require different amounts of external support for these processes and different people may have available different amounts of external support.

These factors determine how long it takes for people to move out of victimhood. Healthy people do move from being victims, and do not continue to define their lives in terms of the losses that they have had. Some people recover quickly and some people take a long time and some people get "stuck" and remain victims for the rest of their lives.

The people who first got on the cell phone and started sifting through debris in the hour after they arrived at the site of their destoyed home, were starting to move out of victimhood very quickly. (Probably even before their mourning was complete. Hopefully, they would also make time to experience and resolve their feelings about the loss, even as they continued to cope with the injury).

The people who were still sitting in their lawn chairs in front of the rubble of their former home ten years later, had apparently made a decision at some point to make victimhood the defining aspect of their existence.

Presumably if we asked the people who rebuilt their houses (or even the ones who sold their lots and moved away and renewed their lives somewhere else) and the people remaining in the lawn chairs to tell their life stories, they would read very differently.

For example: 1982 we were living on this block when hurricane Isabel hit. You wouldn't believe the devestation. We'd only finished our house five years before and we really loved it. When we returned after the storm, I just couldn't believe what I saw. The house was leveled, just a pile of junk and everything we owned had been torn apart or blown away. At first glance, it looked like there wasn't anything left. At first I thought my life was over and that the loss was just too great to be endured. Then I noticed that there was a small iron table that had been in my mother's house that was sticking up out of the debris and I was curious. I went over and felt like I had to dig it out of the pile of rubble and when I discovered that it was intact, I realized I wasn't going to let this storm destory my life. I told Joan to get on the phone and call our insurance agent and I started digging to see what else I could find. It was a really hard few months, but we knew we could make it. We had to fight the insurance company to get enough money to rebuild and we could only afford to build a smaller house than the one we had. In the end, we came to see even that as a blessing, because we ended up with more yard space and when we got back on our feet, we were able to put in a small pool. We still miss our Florida room sometimes, but we are really glad to have the pool. It was a terrible ordeal, but we survived it and I think it made us closer as a couple--we worked together, we shared the pain and the joy of rebuilding our lives.

For example... in 1982 we were living on this block when hurricane Isabel hit. It destroyed our home and wrecked our lives. We lost everything and we've never been able to have a real life since. The insurance company didn't want to pay to rebuild the house and we spent years fighting the bastards, but they never would give us a fair settlement. By the time they wrote us a check, we owed most of it to the damn lawyers and there wasn't enough to build a decent house. So we just stay in a trailer that my cousin owns and pay a little rent from what we got from the insurance company. Most days we just come over and sit in the yard and remember wht we used to have and what we were planning for our future. All that is gone now, we've got nothing and it looks like we never will. Life is so unfair. We know people over in Citrustown just a few miles away that didn't even get any damage from the wind when that storm hit us. Those lucky dogs have a beautiful house and are still living just the way they always wanted. We deserved to have a good life just as much as they did.


On Monday, September 25, 1989 hurricane Isabel hit Southeast Florida. The 3700 block of Orchid Lane in Edenville was destroyed--63 homes reduced to piles of rubble.

When the homeowners, who had been evacuated before the storm made landfall, were permitted back into the neighborhood on Thursday, September 28th, they were accompanied by Loni Rogers, reporter from the Miami Coronet. She witnessed the shock, the disbelief, the first signs of overwhelming grief that was sweeping over the members of the 57 families that returned to that block of Orchid Lane (6 families did not return until sometime during the weeks after the storm--they had been warned of the devastation and delyed facing it for various reasons).

On that Thursday morning, Loni watched as each family approached the lot on which their home had existed and watched as they surveyd the bits and pieces of roof, walls, furniture, appliance, family pictures, rugs, twisted bicycles, mangled small sailboats, soggy bits of clothing. It appeared that everyone had lost almost everything.

The tableau that Loni saw an hour after the residents returned to the neighborhood mostly consisted of men, women and children sitting on the grass, or perhaps on a box or lawn chair. These people were generally staring at the ruins of what had been their houses and their lives, glassy eyed, sometimes tearful, speaking little or in hushed tones. A few people were standing or more frequently slowing circling near their homesites, also with somewht vacant stares and frequently with tears streaming down their faces.

Loni noticed in her first glance, that at one site, a woman was on a cell phone, speaking with apparent intensity and her husband was within the perimeter of the foundation of what had been their residence, and he seemed to be pulling out objects and sorting them into two piles.

Three hours later, when Loni returned to the 3700 block of Orchid Lane after surveying the general neighborhood in Edenville, she saw that what she had observed the couple doing at one fallen house, was now being repeated in various ways at 5 or 6 houses. At those former residences, people were talking on phones, sifting through debris, making piles, apparently to move from the site, to save, to discard. She noticed that some of these people were crying, even moaning as they encountered elements of their previous lives which had to be related to and reacted to in entirely new ways.

At the other home sites where families had returned, there was still mostly inactivity--people staring, people sitting, people wandering in a daze. There were more tears than before, and at some sites people were comforting one another. In some places, families seemed to be meeting near the boundaries of their lots and sharing their shocked disbelief with their neighbors and offering consolation to one another.

Loni went back to her office and filed her story, which appeared on the front page of the Coronet on Friday morning. She returned to Orchid Lane about mid-day and she saw greatly increased activity, in various stages at various homesites. In front of several lots, there were many cars and service vans--from insurance companies, building contractors, utility companies. Back hoes, loaders and even dump trucks were at one former house, already taking away some of the ruined house and unsalvageable contents. At other sites, people were just beginning the process of sorting through their wreckage and triaging their possessions from out of the chaos.

There were still lots where people were sitting, more of them on lawn chairs today, but some still on the grass, or wandering aimlessly about, still glassy eyed and unfocused in perception and inactive or aimless.

Loni filed a f0llow up story and the next day was assigned to write about a restaurant that had been badly damaged by the storm, but was now serving some of its customers using several propane powered camping stoves.

Two weeks later, Loni returned to Orchid Lane, and saw that there were signs of progress and recovery at probably 2/3 of the 63 destroyed home sites, in various stages. On two of the lots, the old houses had been totally cleared away and constructions machinery was excavating for new foundations.

There were still perhaps 15 sites, where little seemed to have happened and where one or two or more people were just sitting, usually in lawn chairs, perhaps talking among themselves, with little sign of movement or direction.

Loni went on to other stories and mostly forgot about Edenville and Orchid Lane. 10 years later, a friend of hers moved to Edenville and invited Loni and her husband to come for a barbecue on Sunday afternoon. When Loni drove past the small center of the town she remembered Orchid Lane and decided to swing by and see how the 3700 block had fared.

As their car approached the place where Loni had witnessed the aftermath of the storm and people's reaction to it, she was amazed. There was new houses all around, gardens and flowers as typical of this semi tropical climate, the usual evidences of outdoor life for adults and children--barbecue grills, bicycles, scooters, an occassional small sail boat or Kayak. It was hard to believe that this was the place where so much had been utterly destroyed and taken away.

Loni noticed one lot, where even from some distance, it was apparent that there was not a house. She drove closer and she recognized the couple sitting in two lawn chairs, in front of their former home, that still was a pile of rubble, little changed from the Thursday after the storm, only slightly more decayed and unsightly. Edith and John were sitting in their lawn chairs, an ice chest between them and he was drinking a beer, she a diet Coke.

Loni, got out of her car and approached the couple and when she asked them what had happened to their house, maintaining an assumed reportorial ignorance, Edith said, "Oh, we are victims of that Hurricane, it destroyed our lives." John added, "Yes, Isabel took everything from us. We have nothing left. We were ruined."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

We are, in part, Who we Say we are.

Our Human Existence is made up of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Our experience is strongly influenced by the stories we make up about our lives.

This Blog is intended to support myself and others in the effort to create valuable written answers to the question, "WHO AM I?".

As part of this support, the Blog will contain a fuller explanation of why I think writing autobiographical material is important and how it can be useful.

The blog will also provide some guidelines, both theoretical and practical, for people wanting to write stories about themselves.

I will also publish here some stories about myself as examples of the kind of writing that might prove useful.