I am participating in a weeklong seminar coordinated by the Dulwich Centre exploring the subject of narrative therapy. There are about forty of us here – psychologists, counselors, social workers, community workers, faith community representatives – working with and offering caring/support/therapeutic resources to various individuals and groups. Most participants are from Australia, though I did have occasion to meet someone from Canada, two people from Taiwan, and a Catholic priest from Sri Lanka. All in a day.
Narrative therapy is grounded in personal story, encouraging individuals and groups of people to tell our stories in ways that make us stronger. In most care-based conversations, the person/client/congregant may begin by stating a problem (anxiety, depression, an argument, work-related stress, etc.) Narrative therapy seeks to help a person externalize their problems, to realize that "the problem is the problem, the person is not the problem." A person, in the right environment and setting, properly supported, can develop the ability to contextualize their problems in a larger framework, building the strength to address what bothers them and thus come to share their stories in a richer, more complete manner. We might come to see our problems as part of our lives, rather than defining our lives by our problems.
One of the takeaways from today's session was a discussion regarding agency, namely that human beings, even when faced with dire circumstances, are always acting or taking action. My brain, which still speaks rabbi-ish, immediately went to Unetaneh Tokef, a piyyut(liturgical poem) recited on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The poem opens, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, / On Yom Kippur it is sealed, /Who shall live and who shall die..." and then proceeds to address some pretty awful ways (stoning, drowning, fire) by which we might happen to meet our end. There's a sprinkling of blessing and good in there too, but for the most part, Unetaneh Tokef appears harsh. Really harsh.
And agency? Until the very end of the poem, it seems that the concept of agency, of the power of human action, is largely absent. God is writing and then sealing our fate. We humans seem powerless in the face of an arbitrary God.
Or are we? The concluding line of Unetaneh Tokef indicates, "Repentance, prayer, and just action, temper the severity of God's decree." If ever there were a statement of agency, Unetaneh Tokef, provides us with possibility. How we seek and offer forgiveness, resolving to build upon mistakes, hurts, and transgressions, can empower us to embrace our lives differently. How we live a life of praise, gratitude and hope, rather than one of victimization and blame, can offer us a remarkably different perspective with which to face each passing day. How we try to do the "right thing," living morally and ethically, can make a difference for others, and for ourselves.
We cannot control everything. In fact, there is very little beyond the tip of our nose and the reach of our fingers that we can control. But Unetaneh Tokefand narrative therapy, each from their own disciplines, remind us that we are blessed with agency, and that we alone might feel empowered to share our own stories, listen to the stories that others choose to share with us, unearthing and ultimately narrating the preferred stories of our lives.