Last week, I cited a famous line about writing: It’s simple, just sit at your typewriter and bleed.
I am so grateful to those of you who took the opportunity to affirm my bleeding, although one old friend lamented me breaking the illusion that it was Hemingway who wrote it. But the work of writing about writing, “meta-writing”, gave me the gift of recalling something I learned a long time ago.
I was working as the assistant to Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. My work had me interviewing a broad variety of people about their life history, the fancy term for an interview on their psychosocial history. I would generally begin a three-hour interview by asking for a chronological overview of their life story. That was the fun part, at least for me. I was always surprised at the variety of stories, the intriguing twists and turns of what each person has experienced in this thing we call life.
My trouble was that I became fascinated with these stories, rather than moving on to the the “real” part of the interview which dealt with ascertaining the cognitive structures the person was employing to make decisions about their life, specifically the way in which they were able to make decisions around ethical issues. Were they trapped in a conventional framework of answers that had been passed down from sources that were accepted but largely unexamined? Were they caught in the conflicted tension between competing sets of values? Had that tension resulted in placing this person in the dreaded “vortex of relativity”? Had he/she moved through that vexing vortex to a self-critically chosen frame of reference? Was this person able to use the structure of reason to assess the moral question that was pressing? Had the person been able to achieve an integrity of thought on the far side of the complexity of the problem presented? This was the stuff of careful research. You had to force the process of reasoning that would reveal the “how” people were thinking, not being seduced by the “what’.
This interview would be transcribed and then assessed by a group of researchers trained to identify the cognitive structures being employed. Were there points of evidence around the use of formal operational thinking? Was the logic employed dichotomizing in a strict determination of right and wrong in a binary way or was there evidence of dialectical thinking that found tension in the decision-making process. What level of cognitive functioning did we see at work?
Again, it’s important to note that this is not about “content”, that is, philosophical or theological reasons given for one’s thinking but rather the “structures”, how one is thinking about the moral question addressed. Simply put, it was more about the “how” people thought rather than the “what”. These questions were fascinating to my research colleagues as we tried to prove the truth of our theoretical work of identifying normative, progressive cognitive stages that people move through in their development. My problem was that I was more fascinated by the stories they would tell in the process. As a result of my predilection, my interviews, following the same guidelines as my colleagues, would go for almost twice as long as theirs.
This thrilled the team of folks who transcribed the interviews, making me the least favorite of the research interviewers at the Center. But more importantly, it gave me a clue as to where my real passion resided: stories. I found myself veering off-script to ask probing questions that might look beneath the waterline, to pull back the curtain to see who or what is actually running the show. This tendency made me an expensive research interviewer but a hell of a sleuth in getting at the real story. Asking the probing questions has served me well in my work as a therapist and coach….not so much as a structural cognitive researcher.
As a part of my work at the Center, I was asked to be a part of the design team of events we would hold at Emory and at various sites. In one particular project, Jim asked for me to come up with an activity for the very beginning of the event. In design lingo, he was looking for an “ice breaker”, intended to get the participants engaged with one another and, most importantly, within themselves. I came up with an exercise that came to be known as Chapters of My Life.
We would begin the exercise by prompting the participants to imagine that they had been asked to write a spiritual autobiography. We asked them to review their “life story” in a chronological approach, naming each chapter within that continuing narrative. The project was for them to write down eight to twelve chapter titles that would give a sense of the flow of their lives. After a time of reflection, writing the chapters down on notebook paper, we asked them to give their “autobiography” a title that captured the “feel” of their life.
Then, we wanted them to transfer this work onto the infamous newsprint that educators bring with them to such events, using a wide variety of colors of magic markers. We told the participants, upfront, that we would then ask them to read the chapter titles in front of the group, with NO explantory comments, nor questions asked from the group. Simply read your chapter titles, followed by the naming of your story with a title.
In introducing the exercise, I would “prime the pump” by showing my own chapter titles, which modeled the creative imagination we were wanting. “Abandoned…Yet Loved”, “Grace by Adoption”, “Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief”, gave them some examples of what we were looking for, as the chapter titles were images of that time in your life. I would always pause to tell them of an early participant from within a certain religious denomination, that will not be named (think United), whose titles took this form: “Early Childhood”, “Childhood”, “Late Childhood”. Nervous laughter among the troops ensued. That was not what we are looking for. Rather, we were looking for rich, vibrant, descriptive titles.
Finally, I would admonish them to work on their own, that there would be plenty of time to talk with one another, but this was not that time. I would pause and say dramatically, “No Cheating!”. I would quote Woody Allen that it was cheating to look deeply into another’s soul……this was in a galaxy, long ago and far away, when Woody was popular, and it played well with the groups at the time and got my point across.
And so, it began, I would remind them of the process as they thought deeply in reflection, and then wrote the Chapters of My Life down on paper, transcribed onto the newsprint, and then hung on the wall.
When everybody had finished, I would gather them in a group, standing in the middle of the room. I would lead the group to one corner where one of the participants was asked to begin. That person would read each chapter title, with no comment, allowing no questions or clarification, and then offer the “title” for their life story. Then we would move as a group to the next piece of newsprint, repeating the action until we had gone around the circle, giving everyone a chance to read their chapters and title.
You will remember that the genesis for this was to serve as a mere “icebreaker” to kick off our week’s work. It turned out to be much more.
We moved in a circle, around the room, each person reading the chapters and titles. As we moved around that primal circle, not unlike the fire in the middle of a primitive camp, a sense of the Holy arose. Each life told a sacred story, full of intimated hope, dreams, tragedy, and death. Often tears flowed, voices cracked as memories flooded the room. Participants felt an existential connection with other members of the group as we shared our experiences and the basic work of homo poeta, humans being meaning-makers, making sense out of our lives by constructing narratives, stories. We were standing on Sacred, Holy Ground.
Let me assure you that this was a surprise to our design team, especially me. It felt like a kind of revelatory moment as we touched something deep. It became a highlight of the week’s work, prompting deep dives into each chapter, and rich, appreciative sharing.
Never looking a gift horse in the mouth, I threw a saddle on the beast and rode it for most of my career. I learned a great deal in this accident of design, about the power of story, and the sacred space of sharing it.
I have used it with pastors needing a pause, and a “refresh”. I have used it with seminarians, in the middle of their coursework and in transition into their first parish. I have used it with boards of directors, and all types of groups, even churches. I even used it once with a group of nurses whose spirit had become so depressed that it was lower than whale poo. It has never failed.
So, for grins, you might, in the middle of this crazy time in our country, give yourself a gift. A pause for the cause. Take a moment to:
- Write your chapter titles for your life, in chronological order.
- Try to capture the “feel” or the spirit of that time in your life with the chapter title.
- Give the “story” of your life a title that names where you have been.
You don’t have to share it with anyone. It’s yours, your story. But, you might want to, as it brings the communal spirit into play, which introduces another dimension. But that’s your choice. For it’s your story, a wonderful, amazing testament to the life you have lived. It may grant you a secret wish of seeing a trajectory that is embedded in your life that will allow you to sense where you need to go next in this wild, crazy, precious life. I hope you find this process intriguing, enough to invest some good time and energy in reflecting and naming the chapters of your life. If you do put in the time and energy, I would enjoy hearing about the results. Enjoy.
What’s your story?