Stories We Live By


There is only one religion

The religion of love 

There is only one language 

The language of the heart 

There is only one caste 

The caste of humanity 

There is only one God 

And He is omnipotent 

Sai Baba

They are means by which people transmit their history, their values, their aspirations, their religious quests and their collective memory.

Stories help to establish an identity in a collective and in an individual sense. In a collective sense, stories of our origins and creation contribute in a decisive way to establishing a social identity. There is hardly a people on earth who do not have a story about their origins and how the world came into being. Equally most people have stories about great challenges, quests and conquests. Before writing came into being, story telling was a means of passing all of these on to the next generation and through the written records, this process has continued until the present day. Collective stories have always provided us with a context of history, meaning and values to help us perceive and understand reality. Contrary to popular perception, reality is not something that can be put in a box and then grasped. Reality, like truth, is something that can be approached and understood at different levels and these levels have all been addressed in the form of stories.

But aside from collective stories, we also have individual stories and these have been my particular area of interest. When I speak of individual stories, I am not referring to stories written by writers. Rather I'm pointing to a more universal phenomenon, namely that each of us has stories that he or she lives by. The individual stories that people live by matter very much because they have effects on the individual psyche. They also act as a filter for the perception of external and internal events. They can be thought of as reasonably enduring pictures in the mind. I have come to know this landscape more intimately over the years in my practice as a psychotherapist.

In psychotherapy, people tell stories about themselves. Why do they need to tell stories? The reason is quite simple, it is the way in which people give an account of themselves. In this account they transmit something very important about the way they see themselves, the way they see others and it is a way of sharing important events in their lives.

The therapists can get to know through the stories that they hear, what the areas are in a person's life which are not functioning properly. Sometimes a particular story a person lives by, where it concerns his self-image for example, can contribute to an imbalance in their personality, to a blockage of their energy and to the strengthening of their defences in the wrong places.

If a person's self image includes low self-esteem or a sense of inadequacy or contempt for example, it becomes necessary to examine the underlying stories together with the patient in order to find the origin of this negative self evaluation and to connect it where necessary.

To illustrate what I have just said I will take, as an example, a patient that I have worked with. He was a middle-aged gentleman with two children. When he first came to see me he was in his early forties. He was a physically strong man who appeared to be very tense and mistrustful. He had lost his mother in his mid-teens and his father in his early twenties. Though he had completed professional training, he never had the chance to practice his profession because his father's death forced him to take charge of a small family firm that his father had set up. He hated this job but he felt that he couldn't do anything about it - he felt very sorry for himself.

He was a Jewish man, reasonably observant and he was also a Freemason. When he first came to see me, he did so under duress. His wife had decided to send him because she felt that their marriage was in danger. The communication between them had broken down and the couple hadn't had any sexual relations for many years.

As one can well understand, this was not a propitious beginning for a therapeutic encounter. The original spark of will was absent on his part. A person, in my experience, functions better when he chooses what he wants to do and in this case it was no exception. In spite of this, he came to see me for three years which, given the circumstances in which he came, is a very long time. This was a man with a great capacity for endurance and sticking power but in spite of all my best efforts, he remained resentful and was very difficult to read. He was unhappy and discontented with his life but, as he had a strong streak of rigidity and stubbornness in his character, he refused to do anything about his situation. Sometimes I got the impression that he was only coming to see me to prove that I was no good and that nothing we did together would shift him from his self-destructive course.

It was a very sad situation. Here was a man at the peak of his life who had constructed a fence around himself which stopped him from interacting properly with the world and which kept him out of touch with himself and with what was going on inside him. Many years ago, when he was very young, he had built this impregnable barrier around himself and now he was a prisoner. He went through the motions of being a good father and a stable provider but that was something that he was finding more and more difficult to sustain because, like with everything else, it was something that was on the surface of his being without any access to the deeper parts of himself.

The pressures he was under seemed to increase and increase, but his strength and stubbornness were even greater. He became more and more closed, surly and secretive. Eventually he decided to end his therapy because he felt, and rightly so, that it was not working. It was an unsuccessful outcome for him and for the therapy but unfortunately these things sometimes happen.

I didn't see or hear from this gentleman for several years, when one day, quite unexpectedly, I received a surprising phone call from him saying that he wanted to come and see me again.

This time when he came, he seemed very distressed and told me that since the time he left his therapy, things had gone from bad to worse. His business was about to collapse. During the intervening years he had set up a side line to his business with a partner who had cheated him and he had lost a lot of money. His relationship with his wife was worse than ever and he was at his wits end. He was feeling that his world was about to disintegrate and he felt he was now really ready to be helped.

This was a turning point. He had finally reached a time in his life in which he felt he really needed help and that he could accept help. Through the stresses and the strains of his life, his understanding of himself and of the world was changing. He was ready to change the story he lived by. His strong defences were melting away and he had found a new place inside himself, a place of true humility in which he was able to recognise his dependence on others without feeling it was a humiliation or a defeat. He was truly grateful for my interest in him.

This turning in him was the key to a new beginning and a flowering of his life. He first had to acknowledge all the tremendous mess he had created through his actions and he started taking active steps to put them right. The first thing that he did in the second part or new beginning was to open wide the doors of his world. He decided to trust me and to let me in. What were once opaque walls, slowly started becoming more transparent. By allowing at last and at least one place in his life to be a place where he felt he could trust and feel secure, this gave him strength and confidence and he started experimenting with this trust and extending it to the wider world.

Through facing things fairly and squarely for the first time, he was doing something very important, he was abandoning his previously held ostrich philosophy which enabled him to start fixing the problems he was having. Slowly and painfully he started re-organising his business which fortunately narrowly survived against all expectations.

In spite of his progress in different ones, one great problem still remained. He still couldn't communicate openly and candidly with his wife. He was fundamentally frightened of her and was terrified of expressing his feelings and his thoughts to her. Because of this fear, he had effectively locked her out of his confidence and over many years, a thick wall of mistrust, anger and of mutual misunderstandings had risen between them. His fear of her was too great and nothing that I did or said to him seemed to help to alleviate this stuck situation. I was happy enough with the way things were evolving in the rest of his life, but I felt that if in this process he would have to loose his wife and family after more than twenty years, it would be too high a price to pay. It would be like throwing away the baby with the bath water.

This moved me to take a decision which was quite radical from the point of view of my professional work. I too was ready to change one story I lived by. I spoke to my patient and persuaded him that he should invite his wife to come for one of his sessions so that the three of us could discuss the problem and see what could be done.

The first joint interview proved to be very revealing. His poor wife was so confused and in the dark about her husband that she told us quite openly that she wasn't sure what was going on. She didn't know if her husband was gay or if he was having a relationship with someone else. In this first encounter, we were able to clarify these points and to put her mind at rest. But I was left with the feeling that this was just an indication of how far apart this loving couple had drifted.

They were both concerned and they wanted their marriage to work out but they didn't seem to know how to do it. I suggested that my patient should continue coming to see me on his own once a week and that he and his wife should have a session, also with me, on a weekly basis. This seemed to be a reasonable compromise given that my patient adamantly refused to go and see someone else.

We worked in this way for a long time and I am pleased to say that the outcome was a successful one. They discovered in the therapy that the secret of a good relationship lies in learning to communicate with respect and to trust the process as it unfolds.

This is just one example. In other cases outcomes could be very different. It is important to recognise that the person retains his essential condition of freedom. My concern is simply to help my patients to become aware of inconsistencies and to help them come to a true picture of themselves.

One of the difficulties we have in seeking truth is that it is coloured by emotions which can distort our judgement. When we become more objective, we are able to drop excessively harsh, careless or impossible judgements which distort the story. The journey a patient and a therapist make in the search for truth involves setting the story straight. Perhaps human perception of truth is never absolute but we must always strive for it.

In a social context, stories do not merely transmit accounts of events, they are not mere reports. Stories that endure and have power survive because they transmit values and they speak to that which is universal in man. Their function is therefore an educational and moral one. In the case of individuals and their stories it is the conscious development of values such as seeking truth that enables the person to develop authenticity. A story cannot be valued solely for its imaginative power or the beauty of its expression. Great stories have the function of awakening the higher faculties in man. These higher faculties include the capacity to perceive truth. I think that truth at this level relates to that which endures, that which is eternal.

The story of the origin of the Jewish people for example, goes back to time of Abraham. He was the original ancestor of the Jewish nation. But there is a more primary story of our origins in the Bible and that is the story of Adam. It is through this story that each of us is linked with all of humanity.

This more primary consciousness leads us to the here and now. Here and now are fundamental because it is truly all we have. We are living in a world in transition where old certainties are melting away and new forms are struggling to be born. It is fair to say that in this era of instant communication, a wider consciousness is being born. This consciousness is beginning to recognise the oneness of humanity, even amidst the difficulties and the disorders of our time. To be concerned with the suffering of other human beings far across the globe is one example, to be concerned for the health of our planet is another. In this new expanding consciousness, a struggle is taking place; part of the struggle is to find new forms through which to express that wider consciousness. But equally part of the struggle relates to the awareness of wider responsibilities. These responsibilities extend to everything that lives on the planet. As we integrate in our being this expanded consciousness, we awaken and we come to understand aspects of ourselves and of the biblical story of Adam in a different way. In that story, Adam and Eve went their own way and separated themselves from the path that God had laid out for them. The path they chose lead them to hardship and struggle.

Today our challenge is to see ourselves as a part of one human family and it is our duty to do our part so that the human family is a functional family. Sharing stories is an important way of enabling us to recognise each other and of developing our sense of common humanity. At a time of such great changes, like the one we are living in, we need firm guideposts more than ever. These guideposts are the values inherent in our most enduring and inspirational stories. The difficulty of modern man is that many other sort of stories vie for his attention. At each step, he must decide which ones to accept and which to reject. The fact that we are still interested in biblical stories today, thousands of years after they were conceived and then written down, is a testimony to the values that they bear.

Stories are important because we carry them at the very core of our being. It is a sign of maturity to recognise that not all stories come from the same level and to learn from those which will illuminate and further our development.

I will end with an old Middle Eastern tale. Once upon a time a wise old man was looking back on his life. He sat with his friends in the tea shop telling his story: "When I was young, I was fiery. I wanted to amaze everyone. I prayed to God to give me the strength to change the world. In mid-life, I awoke one day and realised my life was half over and I had changed no-one. So I prayed to God to give me the strength to change those around me who so much needed it. Alas, now I am old and my prayer is simpler. 'God' I ask 'please give me the strength to at least change myself.'"