Remembering the Healing Stories

Winter_FogLauret Savoy ends Traces with this: “Remembering is an alternative to extinction.”

Remembering is a well-formed story. One of my early clinical teachers used to insist that neurosis was that which prevented the development of healing story, and that psychotherapy was the search for stories that worked. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is also the most useful definition of trauma; indeed, perhaps, as Pierre Janet suggested, trauma and neurosis are essentially the same. In that view, neurosis becomes a sort of effect of trauma, a trace of that which defies narrative.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we are reminded that violence seeks to interrupt the development of rich, liberating stories. To those who hold unfair advantage, there is something frightening in the arrival of empowering, healing stories, and they will do all within their power to prevent the development and dissemination of such liberatory narratives. Assassination is, thus, an attempt to thwart, even erase, a developing narrative. It may also be, as in the Cases of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, an attack on the very soul of a group of people, and thus, a form of genocide. This was blatantly the case in the forced removal of Native children, and their dispersal to far-flung residential schools, as well as in the programs that relocated Native families and individuals to the cities; in each case The People were separated from language and story. 

Fortunately, stories also help oppressed individuals and cultures make their way in the world. I am reminded of Keith Basso’s writings about his experiences as an ethnologist working with the Western Apache, especially his explication of the idea that one might be “shot with a story.” (The irony is an after effect of recent history.) Among his Western Apache colleagues, there was a well honed practice of using stories as moral signifiers, and as vehicles for delivering ethical and moral teaching and rebukes He describes a storied landscape in which historical and mythical events intertwine, informing one another, and providing constant reminders of preferred ways of living and behaving to those who can “read” the narrative infused landscape. In social meetings, stories become arrows that are aimed at those whose behaviors violate preferred norms, especially adolescents and young adults. Those on the receiving end of stories are said to be “shot” by stories, aimed at them to point out destructive behaviors and strongly suggest alternative ways of being.

Such stories form complex, socially sanctioned, ritual and ceremony, that like all truly deep rituals and ceremonies, give preference to a culture’s preferred ways of living, and offer guidance toward, and opportunities for, healing. (“Sorcery” can be understood as the intentional inversion of healing narratives with the intention of doing harm.) Psychotherapy, Word Medicine, is, at its best, a search for preferred ways of being in the world, and lives rich in connection and meaning, largely free of the effects of trauma. Psychotherapy (inherently ritualized) that makes space for traditional and improvised ritual and ceremony is especially powerful.

It is good to remember there are stories of resistance and survivance at the very heart of all trauma narratives. We are all a bit like Coyote or Brer Rabbit, finding ways to steal moments of humanity, even brilliance, from the hands of the oppressor! It is good, even crucial, to honor those moments, those stories, in everyday life, social discourse, and especially, in healing ceremony and psychotherapy. Yet it is easy to miss those exceptional tales of bravery and resourcefulness, so often they have been erased by trauma and ill-used power. All to frequently, the soul forgets those stories in the service of simple survival.

This weekend we are reminded to lift up the very stories the oppressor would hold down, and to remember we are each the heroes the Windigos and Sorcerers would, but ultimately cannot, destroy.


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