I wrote this blog a year and a month ago, as I was turning 30. Some reflection on the healing power of storytelling.
I don’t know if it’s a syndrome that strikes all humans, but turning 30 made me want to write more. It made me want to write more about myself. About parts of myself I have never shared. One of the reasons why I have this urge might simply be that I need to get these things out of my system to keep growing as a person. Another reason might be that I feel the need to make sense of me. Who I am, where I come from, why am I here. The usual self-indulgent existential crap.
Now, a few days before I turned 30 years old, this essay, entitled “I am not a story”, by British philosopher Galen Strawson appeared on various social media, and persisted to remind me of its existence until today, when I finally took the time to read it. It couldn’t be better timing, because that essay is explores, or rather, dismisses the idea promoted by thinkers he bundles up together as “narrativists” that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’ (Oliver Sachs). Instead, he says, we experience life in non-linear, fragmented ways. Life is a collection of moments that don’t make sequential sense, and assuming otherwise is dangerous, because it is “a recipe for inauthenticity”. To paraphrase, storifying yourself is a lie. I guess it’s true. And you just have to look at social media to realise that. When you make a story, all the things you leave out are almost as important as what you put in. Not just all the things you leave out, but also all the things you glorify. All the things you find pretty words or images for.
But what this argument dismisses is that some lives are so fucked up that they need story. They need narrative. They need meaning. I agree that you are not your story. You cannot be reduced to a story. But you can use story to find sense.
Over the last few months, I have worked on a participatory storytelling project with people who have experienced homelessness, abuse, addiction, prison… In short, people who have had really tough lives. Who have survived so much that I found it hard to believe they were standing in front of me. Not only standing in front of me, but also smiling, being human, being kind, and generously sharing the insight they have on their past.
Of course not all the stories made narrative, sequential sense. In some cases, a decade would go unmentioned, as if it generated no meaningful facts or events to cling onto. But that’s not the point. Memory is not the point. Fact is not the point. The point is that sometimes, finding your narrative is part of healing.
After having spent days meeting and listening to 12 people who have experienced, or are experiencing these issues, we held an event, where we shared their stories with other people who have gone through similar experiences, as well as people who deliver and commission homelessness, probation, addiction or mental health services. After the event, we interviewed Tex, one of the participants who had shared his own story with us. He said:
“I’ve come to realise that the majority of us had the same experiences in childhood that have led us on the path we are today.”
Often, going back to this childhood trauma, and understanding why or how that trauma sent you down a certain path was the first step to recovering, to start “living your truth”. Telling your life story is incredibly hard, and it’s imperfect. But it’s also bloody helpful.
“I don’t mind sharing my truth with whoever. Because I’ve realised that without confronting my truth… life seems worthless to me… I don’t think I’m on the planet to lie… I’m sticking by my truth. The large majority of my life has been based on lies, having to pretend to suit certain environments, to please certain people. No more. I shall be myself.”