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From the Community | Surviving storms with the narrative self

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I was intrigued reading the opinion piece, “The Pitfalls of the Narrative Self,” in which Hannah Kim poses a vital question: What happens when society is filled with people who narrate their own stories with themselves as the main character? However, when I reached the article’s culminating insight — Maybe self-understanding is like happiness; if you have to actively pursue it, you’re doing it wrong. All the more reason to stop telling stories about ourselves to make sense of who we are — I no longer felt intrigue, but a rolling wave of grief that I couldn’t shake. I would like to offer another way of thinking about the narrative self.

I arrived at Stanford in 2011 after a long summer in Delaware providing hospice care for my father. I was twenty-three years old with no inclination towards nursing, and about as outside of my comfort zone as the character in “Juno” (2007) who gets pregnant at 16. Her dad asks: “Hey, big puffy version of June bug. Where you been?” Juno replies: “Oh, just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.” 

After my father died that October, I was lost. At night, when I tried to sleep, my heart raced; during the day I felt intermittent sharp chest pains. For months after, during the night my body would startle awake. Had I missed a dose of meds? A call for help? Twice, I awoke certain that his dead body was on top of mine, smothering me. Everything as far as my imagination could travel was emptiness. This emptiness frightened me and I sought to relieve it. I hooked up with a friend, notably, not my partner. This only caused more suffering, though it was a distraction from the original source of pain. 

I went to the library and looked for a book that would stop the world from spinning. My father’s sudden illness, care and death was a life-altering disturbance. The library’s selection of psychology books left much to be desired. I felt desperate. I had been busy being strong for my father, but now that it was my turn to fall apart, I didn’t know how. Who would care for the caretaker, and how could I even ask for that? I moved to California to try to work things out with my partner, who was my one foothold. But when I arrived at Stanford, I found that working with the Storytelling Project was much more powerful than support from one individual.

Often, we don’t have a space for meaningful reflection and personal inquiry. This space can be created by telling your story, but it is a huge risk of vulnerability to let someone in, especially for those with unmourned, unwitnessed experience. At that point, I had not even witnessed my own experience. So much had happened in a short time that I had not been able to inhabit my feelings while carrying out the work of the day. Storytelling is a way to process dense experiences that need time and space. It took almost a year before I opened up and shared my story with a staff producer. Every question she asked felt like a pressure release valve. She was patient and gentle, and we worked together to tell my story over five or six months. She was the first person who sat with me in a quiet room and asked, What was it like? And if I became lost in minutiae, she guided me towards metaphor. 

Working in this method, my personal story became rich with universal motifs. Rather than feeling like my grief was the worst grief of anyone who had ever lived, I began to identify with other women who had undergone such trials. Many young women lose those they care for, and I learned this because they shared their stories. I began to see something of myself in all women who have come before me, who have sacrificed their bodies and dreams of a life that “should have been.” I see myself in my father, who struggled to ask for help after he was diagnosed. 

Before working with Natacha, I carried my story around, allowing a sense of injustice, grief and rage to underpin everything I did. Afterwards, I wasn’t magically better but I felt less alone. By being honest and compassionate about my own suffering, I stopped holding on to it. I fear a world where society is filled with people who are not narrating their own stories. Without self-understanding, we are liable to carry unprocessed, unexamined narratives around for our entire lives, thinking and acting from a place of wounding, be it guilt, grief, loss, betrayal, doubt, loneliness, depression, despair, obsession, addiction, anger, fear, angst or anxiety. 

I tell stories not to reinforce narratives, but to get down in the mud with them, to work experiences deeply, to become less haunted, and pass between a stuck place and movement, where new ways of seeing are possible. Over-identification with narrative or fantasy or victimhood may be unproductive. But more commonly, I meet students who have just left behind whatever identity they had in high school and are experiencing something like I did after my dad passed; that groundless emptiness. We re-learn our place in the world through relationality and curiosity. 

Self-inquiry gives students permission to be curious about who they want to be now. Giving experiences shape, narrativizing them, is a way to connect feelings and experience, interior and exterior, not to build a persona, but to make meaning. We ask questions like, When did you know x to be true? Students enter a process that Jad Abumrad, host of the Radiolab podcast, affectionately calls being lost in the German forest, an incoherent state characterized by questioning that doesn’t immediately produce an organized answer. Deep in the forest during narrative inquiry, a student may arrive at a place far from their original inquiry, now asking something more like: Who/what am I? 

Self-understanding is hard-won in this forest. We take back the mic from ideas that have been piled on us by friends, parents, teachers, even ourselves. We all inherit erroneous and inadequate narratives that have proved false but still influence our imaginations. Without self-inquiry, we will never get to choose what is ours. Narratives about who we are affect creativity, our understanding of the self and the way in which global problems play out. Because nothing happens in a vacuum. Narratives drive economic inequality, species loss, climate change and social conflict. Coming into a narrative self means seeing things as systems, seeing broad patterns and greater complexity, which then leads to a capacity for engaging the stories we are presented with.

The work of re-weaving narratives leaves us less wounded and gives us greater access to be with what is happening as it happens. I’m excited about narrative storytelling as a medium of empowerment. My goal for storytelling is to increase relationality. It’s also the goal of many organizations devoted to helping people develop narrative capacity, like the Stanford Storytelling Project, StoryCraft, Narrative 4 and Voice of Witness. 

Too many narratives are inadvertently sublimated in service to individualism and capitalism. This slow violence manifests in the world when we don’t actively pursue self-understanding. We must communicate our experiences to start hard conversations. Narrating one’s story should be a vehicle for agency, self-possession and identifying oneself as a member of a community. 

Consider the writings of community organizer Marshall Ganz, whose work in narrative is rooted in the movement from me to we, telling personal narratives that communicate values and inspire public action. Narrative storytelling is a critical tool for surviving transition times, when we are forced to adapt to new conditions. 

Thinking critically about my place in the world requires expanding my awareness. As I do, I can see the entire web of life itself. I see the parts of “my” story as interchangeable with others. Because I no longer strongly differentiate between self and other. When I hear your story, it becomes part of me. And when you read this story about me it becomes part of you. And the more I heal, I don’t feel that I am my narrative. But it does matter what I make of it.

Disclosure: Though I work for the Stanford Storytelling Project, my views do not represent the views of the project. 

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Christy Hartman is the Program Coordinator for the medical humanities program, Medicine & the Muse at the Stanford School of Medicine and was a staff producer for the Stanford Storytelling Project from 2011-2021. Contact Christy at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.