Showing posts tagged stories

The stories he couldn’t tell

“How do you put this man out of his misery?” That was a line that had been floating in my head for weeks. I had been thinking of Bernardo Soares, the introspective bookkeeper in 1930s Lisbon whom Fernando Pessoa created as his alter ego in The Book of Disquiet. Soares spends most of his time walking the streets, sitting at cafés, ruminating over his headaches, insomnia, tedium, his “worthless self,” and “the vast indifference of the stars.” The book is strangely compelling; all that brooding can be addictive. Yet sometimes even I (and you know me, it ain’t easy being me)—yes, even I was getting impatient with that whiny, repetitive voice.  

I wanted Soares/Pessoa to lighten up, get some sun, get laid, get on Tumblr, shut up, or seek professional help already. But he won’t. He doesn’t believe suicide is the answer. Neither is human connection nor divine intervention. Neither atheism nor Christianity, not even the “resignation” of the Buddha. Nothing works for him. Art is mere pretense, like the masked ball that is life. He’s forever moaning: “I’m tired. I had a long day full of idiotic work….” And groaning: “I have no social or political sentiments.” “The idea of travelling nauseates me.” “I hate to read.” “I’m dazed by the sarcastic terror of life….” Worse, “our pain has no value beyond its being a pain we feel.” And: “No one understands anyone else.” This was all too much even for mopey me.

Perhaps it all reminded me of my own “issues.” I was getting antsy, snarky, and miserable because I couldn’t finish writing what I had started about Pessoa. I guess the Disquiet excerpts I had posted would be enough to speak for him. For both of us. I’m the one who should shut up. So I gave up trying to make sense of another man’s pain and loneliness. If I couldn’t tell my story about him, perhaps this is not the time or the way to do it. Again, I just need to let go. Quit worrying. “Be indifferent,” as Pessoa himself would advise. Then, Tuesday morning, I was stunned by the first thing I read on the Internet: “Robin Williams dead at 63 in suspected suicide.”

Part of me is getting sick of the eulogies. That he was a kind and gentle man, sweet and generous and compassionate. Part of me couldn’t get enough of it. We shouldn’t get enough of it. Yes, keep the tributes pouring. Let’s keep thinking of him, thanking him for making us laugh and cry, appreciating the goodness of his life, the greatness of his soul. Let’s keep mourning him. Perhaps that’s one way we could keep reminding ourselves that we’re all vulnerable. Depression, addiction, and suicide are real, ugly, and lethal. These are types or outcomes of mental illness we should not romanticize or be complacent about. This is not the time to be indifferent.

Like many others, I was a kid when I got introduced to Williams in the late 1970s via Mork and Mindy. He was Mork, TV’s funny alien and friend to Pam Dawber, the sweetest girl on the planet. It wasn’t my favorite show, and Mork wasn’t my favorite character. I was more into Charlie’s Angels, Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, James at 15 (and at 16), Family, Three’s Company, and The Muppet Show. But like those other characters, Mork made me feel that my fish-out-of-water self could find ways to swim, crawl, or stumble on wherever life put me.

Mork showed me that everyone was weird and sad in some ways. He reminded me that with a little luck and love, we could all laugh, endure, and find human connection no matter how alien or alone we felt. It’s the sort of cheesy nostalgia that makes me think of how simple life used to be. How reassuring it was to watch TV and movies, read books, and enjoy the company of people you could only meet on the screen or on the page. That was how life was supposed to be: there were problems, but people learned to deal with them.

Mork wasn’t supposed to give up trying to understand these unpredictable earthlings. He wouldn’t self-destruct, even as he struggled with his doubts and failures. In nostalgia and denial, I still insist that Williams wasn’t supposed to die this way. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, Anderson Cooper’s brother, my friend’s cousin—no, they weren’t supposed to go this way. They were going to stick around for as long as they could. Perhaps that’s exactly what they did.

And I do not mean that as glib resignation. I do not mean to glamorize suicide, addiction, or depression with that list of famous names. I’m not saying it’s OK to harm yourself and give up on life. And I am not in favor of explicit or sensationalized reporting about suicide. I know that even a personal blog like this has a responsibility to those who might be affected by such public issues as mental health. But my response to the things I read and watch can’t be anything but personal. In which case I am bound to write a lot of self-serving, potentially offensive, and ultimately pointless statements.

Still, I wonder if Rebecca Solnit’s story about the resilient Turtle Man would have made any difference to any of these men. Would they have been consoled by her beautiful passage about a “generous world” in which we allow ourselves to cry out for help and to offer help? I wonder if the example of Pessoa, who wrote some of the most depressing pages in literature, would have meant anything to them. After all, here’s a real person who endured what he called “the tragic futility of life” till an illness (cirrhosis of the liver) finally put him out of his misery. I can only hope that the eulogies for Williams, along with the “think pieces” about his depression and addiction, help us find more ways or better reasons to stick around.

The night before I found out about the actor’s death, I began reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. In the first chapter, the author-psychoanalyst writes about a patient named Peter who fakes his suicide because he has other (true) stories that were too difficult or painful to tell. Grosz says: “I believe all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but Peter was possessed by a story that he couldn’t tell. Not having the words, he expressed himself by other means.”

We will never know the stories that Robin Williams couldn’t tell his family and friends, his fans, or those who could have given him the help he needed. But we can always find comfort in the characters he gave us. The empathetic alien in Mork and Mindy, the generous genie in Aladdin, the father/nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, the mad homeless widower in The Fisher King, the doctor in Awakenings, the therapist in Good Will Hunting, the loner in One-Hour Photo, the teacher in Dead Poets Society. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for all the stories you told us to keep us far and safe from our misery.

“Maybe if I really paid attention to my life I’d notice that I don’t know what’s going to happen this afternoon and I can’t be fully confident that I’m competent to deal with it. Maybe we’re willing to let in that thought. It has some reasonableness to it, I can’t exactly know, but chances are, possibilities are, it’s not going to be much different than what I’ve usually experienced and I’ll do just fine, so we close up that unsettling possibility with a reasonable response. The practice of awareness takes us below the reasonableness that we’d like to think we live with and then we start to see something quite fascinating, which is the drama of our inner dialogue, of the stories that go through our minds and the feelings that go through our heart, and we start to see in this territory it isn’t so neat and orderly and, dare I say it, safe or reasonable. So in the practice of awareness, which has gone on for centuries after centuries and millennium after millennium, human beings have asked themselves, Hmmmm, how do I engage this process in a way that I don’t become too frightened by what it might unfold or too complacent by avoiding it? This is the delicate work of awareness.”

Rebecca Solnit, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Passing by

“In the faint shadows cast by the last light before evening gives way to night, I like to roam unthinkingly through what the city is changing into, and I walk as if nothing had a cure. I carry with me a vague sadness that’s pleasant to my imagination, less so to my senses. As my feet wander I inwardly skim, without reading, a book of text interspersed with swift images, from which I leisurely form an idea that’s never completed.
There are those who read as swiftly as they see, and they finish without having taken it all in. So I, from the book skimmed in my soul, glean a hazy story, remembrances of another wanderer, snatches of descriptions of twilights or moonlights, with garden paths in the middle, and various silk figures passing by, passing by .  .  .”
— Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet (edited and translated by Richard Zenith)
(Photograph: Untitled, 1926, by Jan Lauschmann [1901–1991]. Thank you, Howard Greenberg Gallery.)

Passing by

In the faint shadows cast by the last light before evening gives way to night, I like to roam unthinkingly through what the city is changing into, and I walk as if nothing had a cure. I carry with me a vague sadness that’s pleasant to my imagination, less so to my senses. As my feet wander I inwardly skim, without reading, a book of text interspersed with swift images, from which I leisurely form an idea that’s never completed.

There are those who read as swiftly as they see, and they finish without having taken it all in. So I, from the book skimmed in my soul, glean a hazy story, remembrances of another wanderer, snatches of descriptions of twilights or moonlights, with garden paths in the middle, and various silk figures passing by, passing by .  .  .

Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet (edited and translated by Richard Zenith)

(Photograph: Untitled, 1926, by Jan Lauschmann [1901–1991]. Thank you, Howard Greenberg Gallery.)

Reeds

We don’t even know if what ends with daylight terminates in us as useless grief, or if we are just an illusion among shadows, and reality just this vast silence without wild ducks that falls over the lakes where straight and stiff reeds swoon. We know nothing. Gone is the memory of the stories we heard as children, now so much seaweed; still to come is the tenderness of future skies, a breeze in which imprecision slowly opens into stars. The votive lamp flickers uncertainly in the abandoned temple, the ponds of deserted villas stagnate in the sun, the name once carved into the tree now means nothing, and the privileges of the unknown have been blown over the roads like torn-up paper, stopping only when some object blocked their way. Others will lean out the same window as the rest; those who have forgotten the evil shadow will keep sleeping, longing for the sun they never had; and I, venturing without acting, will end without regret amid soggy reeds, covered with mud from the nearby river and from my sluggish weariness, under vast autumn evenings in some impossible distance. And through it all, behind my daydream, I’ll feel my soul like a whistle of stark anxiety, a pure and shrill howl, useless in the world’s darkness.

Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet (edited and translated by Richard Zenith)

(Photograph: Reeds and Black Water, 1972, by Brett Weston [1911–1993]. Thank you, Brett Weston Archive.)

Junot Díaz

My plan [for This Is How You Lose Her] was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human—the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. In my mind what novels do best is that they immerse us deeply into our character’s world—they truly transport us deep into these spaces—but the same way you know a Hollywood movie won’t end after thirty minutes, you carry in yourself the implicit contract that the novel won’t throw you out of itself ’til the very end. That bulk of pages is a form of consolation, of security.

Of course we all know that’s not how life works. The novel that is our life can end at any time. Sometimes even on page one. We know story collections end when they end, as well—the pages serving as a countdown—but nevertheless the standard story anthology hews closer to what makes being human so hard: it reminds you with each story how quickly everything we are, everything we call our lives can change, can be upended, can disappear. Never to return. Usually at the end of each story we’re thrown clear out of the story’s world and then we’re given a new world to enter. What’s unique about a linked collection is that it can deliver both sets of narrative pleasures—the novel’s long immersion into character-world and the story anthology’s energetic (and mortal) brevity—the linked collection is unique in its ability to be both abrupt and longitudinal simultaneously. How fucking cool is that?

from “The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Junot Díaz by Gina Frangello

 (Photograph by Nina Subin. Thank you, Ms. Subin and The Rumpus.)

Junot Díaz on the “profound terror that we call love”

Fifteen Minutes: Are most of the stories in your new collection “This is How You Lose Her” about love in some way?

JD: Love and its consequences. It’s really a book about the rise and fall of a Dominican male slut. How did the boy learn to be a male slut, or at least this particular boy? How he is formed, and how that formation undoes him in the end. Because one must reflect that many of the messages we labored under were piercingly contradictory.

FM: How so?

JD: On the one hand, we’re told that the sort of proof and excellence of a man is measured by how many girls he can get, by his lack of vulnerability, by his indifference and often his hostility towards what would be considered traditional women’s arenas: domesticity, love, familial bonds, nurturing, family. And then there’s the other side which is: Who the fuck can be whole, who the fuck can be human without intimacy, without encountering that profound terror that we call love? On the one hand, you’re being told that that shit doesn’t mean shit. That that shit is shit. And on the other hand, your heart is dying for it. And it’s not as if boys are victims. Boys, believe me, profit quite well from the patriarchal, heteronormative arrangement. But, on the other hand, there clearly is a price to be paid for being a loyal boy. I think it’s really, really interesting how we doubled down on our bullshit because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. If I get more girls, maybe I’ll feel better. If I’m more of a masculine prick, maybe I’ll feel better. Maybe you just dig yourself deeper into a hole.

[ … ]

FM: So you don’t consider yourself an asshole anymore?

JD: Oh, of course I do. That never goes away. Come on, one doesn’t let oneself off the hook that easily. I think that it’s not the situation where one is transformed, where one is instantly converted and the conversion sticks. The truth is that you manage that shit. But that shit doesn’t fucking go away—that’s why I think it’s sort of dishonest when dudes are like, “I’m a feminist.” I’m not certain if, given all the training we’re given, men can be feminists. I believe myself a feminist ally, but a feminist? I think it would be possible only when we have the matriarchal revolution we’re all dreaming for.

— from “Fifteen Questions with Junot Díaz” by Rebecca F. Elliott (The Harvard Crimson)

To be a man

No one has ever hidden it from him. They tell him the story over and over again, as though afraid that he might forget.

On some nights he opens his eyes and the pig has come back. Always huge and pale. Its hooves peg his chest down and he can smell the curdled bananas on its breath. Blunt teeth rip a strip from under his eye and the muscle revealed is delicious, like lechosa. He turns his head to save one side of his face; in some dreams he saves his right side and in some his left but in the worst ones he cannot turn his head, its mouth is like a pothole and nothing can escape it. When he awakens he’s screaming and blood braids down his neck; he’s bitten his tongue and it swells and he cannot sleep again until he tells himself to be a man.

Junot Díaz, from “No Face,” in Drown (Riverhead Books, 1996)

(Image by dabacahin.)

His Destiny

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

Pa’ ’fuera! his mother roared. And out he would go, like a boy condemned, to spend a few hours being tormented by the other boys—Please, I want to stay, he would beg his mother, but she shoved him out—You ain’t a woman to be staying in the house—one hour, two, until finally he could slip back inside unnoticed, hiding himself in the upstairs closet, where he’d read by the slat of light that razored in from the cracked door. Eventually, his mother rooting him out again: What in carajo is the matter with you?

(And already on scraps of paper, in his composition books, on the backs of his hands, he was beginning to scribble, nothing serious for now, just rough facsimiles of his favorite stories, no sign yet that these half-assed pastiches were to be his Destiny.)

— from Footnote 6 in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(Photograph by Gordon Parks. Thank you, Urban Art Gallery and The Gordon Parks Foundation.)

“But hey, it’s only a story, with no solid evidence, the kind of shit only a nerd could love.”

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert: LIVE from the NYPL

(Sometimes the gods smile on me. They say, “OK, take a break from all your brooding and whining. We bring you two of today’s smartest, funniest, spunkiest, and loveliest writers. Listen and laugh and learn.” Ann and Liz. I think they should do a road movie à la “Thelma and Louise” or co-host a talk show to outwit Letterman and Colbert. These two fantastic writers are not just making jewelry for the inside of my head; they’re pumping back life into my days. Thank you, Ms. Patchett and Ms. Gilbert.)

Gilbert:  I’ve been telling people that the motto of The Signature of All Things, that the lesson is that disappointment does not kill women. Because one of the great themes of all novels is that women cannot endure disappointment or betrayal—

Patchett:  —and they must be punished for their mistakes

Gilbert:  —and they must be mercilessly punished

Patchett:  mercilessly punished

Gilbert:  —particularly for sensual errors or bad judgment

Patchett: —especially by Wallace Stegner [laughter]

Gilbert:  —and they must be either rescued or ruined…. And I don’t know a single woman I admire who’s ever been either one of those things. We may have at some time dreamt or feared that either of those things would occur but most likely didn’t. The women that I know who are wise and remarkable and powerful whom I admired didn’t get that way by stuff working out. They got that way by stuff not working out. And then using the amazing superpower of women which is to take disappointment with alchemy and turn it into wisdom. And then look back on their lives and say, “I didn’t necessarily get everything that I wanted, but I got amazing things that I didn’t expect. And I’ve lived with dignity. And I’m really glad I did that journey. And it’s been interesting.” And that’s the story that I want to tell.   

Watch the full video here.

(Thank you, New York Public Library and YouTube.)

Dream of flying upside down

This morning I had a dream of flying upside down. It starts with my brother and me on a motorbike. He’s driving, I’m hanging on. I’m quietly freaking out, not knowing where exactly we’re going or how we’ll ever get there. The motorbike is treading on nothing but air. It swerves around cliffsides, hugging jagged slopes of reddish brown rocks. The tires never touching the ground, we maneuver our way around the precipice. Suddenly I’m off the bike, my brother gone. I dive and cling with both arms around a long, wide railing that curves upward while some kind of reverse gravity keeps pulling my feet up, higher and higher, faster and faster. I’m afraid I’ll lose my grip and fall. I hear someone say, “Let go!” And though I’m terrified, I slowly, involuntarily, loosen my hold. I see other people suspended in air, gliding separately upside down, most of them with arms outstretched in glee. I get the idea: let go like in bungee jumping, your feet safely bound or anchored while you fall and swing. It’s all terrifying and exhilarating; you’re tethered yet liberated. Learn to fall, enjoy the lift, hang in there. And so I start to unhook my arms from the railing. My eyes begin to adjust to this upside-down world. But then the alarm went off. It was 4:30 a.m. Back to where I was, in my room, in bed, in my body and all its symptoms and needs for care and repair. I woke up, went to the bathroom. I peed. This time no visible blood, no palpable pain. Perhaps it was too early in the day. I went back to bed, back to sleep.

I didn’t go to the nephrologist today. I’ll go on Monday instead—see him, then the urologist, and take it from there. It’s been three weeks of consultations, tests, interpretations, second and third opinions. Still nothing definite, nothing cured. Yesterday, I found out that, for the second time, I didn’t pass the creatinine test. Then, for the first time, I had to talk to a surgeon. We discussed two options; for both I’d need clearance from a cardiologist. Oh sure, the more the merrier. Then I was back with the (family medicine) doctor at my HMO, hoping to get a clearer view of the forest, not just the trees. I told her, “I’m getting depressed and confused.” What to do next. Which symptoms or diagnoses or procedures to put aside for a while. She patiently listened, gave forthright advice, smiled. I was comforted briefly. Then the pain or pains returned. I know not all of them should take top priority. There are other urgent things to do, to examine, to fix. I also know I shouldn’t give up “the process,” as my sister referred to it last night. She came to my room to chat, to ask how I’ve been. She, too, was a source of comfort. But I wasn’t so responsive. I was tired, scared, sad, pissed off. I told her I don’t feel like going back to the hospital. I want to take a very long break from the process. She felt it was important to find out at least what the doctors would say after all the tests and procedures (assuming they’d finally agree on something), then I could decide whether I wish to continue from there.

I wish I could just wake up from this nightmare. Why am I here? What is this? Can’t they all just continue the process without me? So melodramatic. Get some perspective, man. You’re not an invalid, you’re not in a coma. It’s not AIDS or ALS or brain cancer. It could be some other kind of cancer, but until you know that, there’s no way you can stop in the middle of the story. Or, as my sister asked, “Wouldn’t you want to know where all this ends?” I said no. Not right now. But I do appreciate her kindness and her reminder: “It might help to take it one day at a time.” I remember something from one of those books I’ve been reading lately—illness narratives, tales about doctors and patients, the search for medical answers playing out like detective novels or the Theater of the Absurd. In his comprehensive scientific study, The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing, Richard Kradin, M.D., says: “Often all that is required for healing is a good night’s sleep.” Removed from the book’s multidisciplinary context, that sounds oversimplified, of course. But Dr. Kradin’s comment echoes a piece of advice from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Early in her megaselling (and undeservingly often maligned) memoir, she tells of kneeling on the bathroom floor at three in the morning, praying and sobbing, confused and inconsolable, then hearing a voice that says: “Go back to bed, Liz.”

Go back to bed, because the only thing you need to do for now is get some rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer. Go back to bed so that, when the tempest comes, you’ll be strong enough to deal with it. And the tempest is coming, dear one. Very soon. But not tonight. Therefore:

Go back to bed, Liz.

Gilbert believes it is her own voice (“it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice …. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate”). She hears this voice after asking God, Please tell me what to do. And it’s the same thing patients ask their doctors. Gilbert’s conception of God—or the beauty of her book—is not as simple or simplistic as you might think. Medicine—or the pursuit of diagnoses and cures—is not as sure or straightforward as you might expect. I’m not about to prescribe eat, pray, love, sleep as a placebo for anyone’s ordeals, medical or otherwise. But sometimes, despite—or because of—the creatinine test failures and chronic pains, you somehow learn to listen to your own voice. In dreams or nightmares, you learn to fall and fly and work your way around the precipice.

A story can always break into pieces

“Wanting to know absolutely what a story is about, and to be able to say it in a few sentences, is dangerous: it can lead us to wanting to possess a story as we possess a cup. We know the function of a cup, and we drink from it, wash it, put it on a shelf, and it remains a thing we own and control, unless it slips from our hands into the control of gravity; or unless someone else breaks it, or uses it to give us poisoned tea. A story can always break into pieces while it sits inside a book on a shelf; and, decades after we have read it even twenty times, it can open us up, by cut or caress, to a new truth.”

Andre Dubus, from “A Hemingway Story,” in Meditations from a Movable Chair

(Photograph by Gregorio C. Thank you, Mr. C and slowgree.)

(Reblogged from slowgree)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion, The White Album


We hail our relations, seek connections
“When we human beings want to understand or describe singular people in particular situations that unfold over time, we reach naturally for narrative, or storytelling, to do so. When we try to understand why things happen, we put events in temporal order, making decisions about beginnings, middles, and ends or causes and effects by virtue of imposing plots on otherwise chaotic events. We hail our relations with other human beings over time by receiving and alluding to stories told by others—in myths, legends, histories, novels, and sacred texts. We seek connections among things through metaphor and other forms of figural language. By telling stories to ourselves and others—in dreams, in diaries, in friendships, in marriages, in therapy sessions—we grow slowly not only to know who we are but also to become who we are. Such fundamental aspects of living as recognizing self and other, connecting with traditions, finding meaning in events, celebrating relationships, and maintaining contact with others are accomplished with the benefit of narrative. A medicine practiced with narrative competence will more ably recognize patients and diseases, convey knowledge and regard, join humbly with colleagues, and accompany patients and their families through the ordeals of illness. These capacities will lead to more humane, more ethical, and perhaps more effective care.”
— from Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon, M.D. 
(Image: Thank you, Barnes & Noble.)

We hail our relations, seek connections

“When we human beings want to understand or describe singular people in particular situations that unfold over time, we reach naturally for narrative, or storytelling, to do so. When we try to understand why things happen, we put events in temporal order, making decisions about beginnings, middles, and ends or causes and effects by virtue of imposing plots on otherwise chaotic events. We hail our relations with other human beings over time by receiving and alluding to stories told by others—in myths, legends, histories, novels, and sacred texts. We seek connections among things through metaphor and other forms of figural language. By telling stories to ourselves and others—in dreams, in diaries, in friendships, in marriages, in therapy sessions—we grow slowly not only to know who we are but also to become who we are. Such fundamental aspects of living as recognizing self and other, connecting with traditions, finding meaning in events, celebrating relationships, and maintaining contact with others are accomplished with the benefit of narrative. A medicine practiced with narrative competence will more ably recognize patients and diseases, convey knowledge and regard, join humbly with colleagues, and accompany patients and their families through the ordeals of illness. These capacities will lead to more humane, more ethical, and perhaps more effective care.”

— from Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon, M.D.

(Image: Thank you, Barnes & Noble.)

Diane Ackerman: “Telling and listening to stories are life-saving acts”

In our own private mind theaters, we are constantly talking to ourselves, yelling at a boss, beseeching a lover, scolding a workman, exchanging witticisms with celebrities, rehearsing different versions of encounters, talking through problems, confiding in ourselves. Children as young as three years old conduct conversations with themselves and invent curious stories. The moment a child is born it is told stories by adults, and it learns what role it plays in the saga of the family. Sometimes the stories are simple: “Your daddy is mowing the grass,” or “Here’s a little bear that’s coming to see you.” Sometimes they’re angry epics of trouble. Children are steeped in narratives. Then they tell their own and add them to the storytelling sounds of the entire human race.

Our stories help us understand a terrifyingly confusing and dangerous world, most of which is riddle. For the world to feel safe, we need to make sense of it, especially when we encounter setbacks and misfortunes that shatter our confidence. Telling anecdotes to friends, we reveal our true natures, we’re not just offering the what and when of our lives. How was your trip? someone asks. The answer gives more than the whereabouts and the weather. It includes encounters, small triumphs, accidents, embarrassments, revised attitudes. Anecdotes alert our friends and loved ones to our basic values, biases, qualities, and concerns—and also how those vital pieces of identity are changing over time. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we revise the facts to fit our evolving sense of self. As the vocabulary of life changes, we need our memory to say something fitting, something that makes sense in a newly ordered world. How we tell the story influences how we feel about ourselves. Change your story and you change your identity.

That’s why, Jungian psychologist James Hillman observes, psychotherapy really amounts to “a collaboration between fictions.” People go into therapy to find a “plot to live by,” psychotherapist Susan Bauer agrees. “They come as if to a professional biographer” to remodel their past and discover a plausible history. [ … ]

According to studies done by James Pennebaker at Southern Methodist University, confiding strengthens one’s immune system. So by simply listening to the confidences of a caller, we perform a life-saving act. Callers [at our Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center] sometimes refer to us as their friends, who offer them genuine support and make them feel less alone. But there is also the benefit of venting one’s troubles instead of stewing in them. When people clarify their troubles, turning them into a narrative, and giving them just enough order to communicate to someone else, the fog lifts briefly and the world becomes a place that can be better understood, even if it isn’t fully enjoyed. Writing books is a form of confiding, too, a way of continuing the conversation with oneself in public. In Pennebaker’s studies, people who didn’t confide were more prone to disease and stress and early death. Much of their physical energy went into containing and hiding emotions, and that led to high blood pressure and a weaker immune system.

Why should describing an event change our feelings about it? By telling stories we assimilate frightening or unexplained events, and fit them into a world where action is possible. One becomes less helpless. Suddenly there are many options for escape or relief, many explanations for how an event that may have turned the world upside down can fit comfortably into one’s life. [ … ]

— from A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis by Diane Ackerman