Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stories of Suffering/Stories of Joy

"Open" Chicago February 2013
A student stated something to me this week that shouldn't have been such a shock. But it was.

This student is writing a memoir. She's been having trouble getting memories out of her mom. Her mom is older, worn out, has had a stroke, and doesn't want to talk about the past. She has threatened to disown my student, in fact, for asking questions about deaths in the family, secrets, potentially shameful or painful things that my student wants so much to understand and get clear in writing her memoir. The process has been heart-breaking.

"All of a sudden I realized the other night that I never ask her about happy memories," my student told me. Wow. Why is that such a shock? It is. "And so I asked her about some happy memories from my childhood. I couldn't get her to STOP talking."

In an interview with a friend of her mom's, my student had heard that her mom was a good mom. A happy mom who really loved her kids. My student was touched by that, really affected and this information likely lead to her asking for more details about good times. Times my student didn't remember, but as soon as her mom began depicting, she recalled clearly.

Memories that were otherwise lost, that didn't fit into her story of suffering.

It is true that we recall suffering more than happiness, that even being present seems easier when we are in pain that in pleasure, or, as is most often the case for a large number of people, when nothing at all is happening. Whenever I do a body prompt - usually a couple of times of year - and ask people to see what their body is saying to them, almost always pain grabs the day.

Somehow there is so much shame around happiness, fear of bragging around it, that we often don't discuss it. The danger is, of course, if we decide that we know who we are (a victim, or someone who has overcome great adversity, or someone who has genuinely suffered - pick your potential poison) then we dismiss everything else that doesn't fit into that story.

The danger of a single story is just as risky in our own personal interactions with ourselves as it is on a socio-cultural level. In other words, it scales down. Though this isn't an "attitude of gratitude" love-and-light call for what you enjoy, remember in good light, it is an important, again, surprisingly, challenge for all writers and humans to take into account. Remember that before you write a single word, you have already told yourself many stories. Maybe this is why fiction sometimes seems closer to the truth than non-fiction - the truth is most of our lives are fiction. So tune in and make sure to get all the details you can, not just those that fit who you think you already are.

If you end an essay, a book, a paragraph even, thinking "Yes, this confirms who I think I am," then you should question that. Hell, not even about writing: if you end a DAY thinking "Yes, that day confirms who I am for me 100%," that should be a signal of danger - danger of solidifying, forgetting, not really paying attention.

Life is full of contradiction, paradox and mixed messages: suffering and joy alongside one another. 
Let all of it in.

PS A lovely post on elephant journal this week related to working with this.


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