Story always seems to be the answer: the narrative structure and emotional health

I read mostly fiction.  I believe–and tell my students–that fiction can often be more true than fact in the ways that it can teach us about life.  What I’ve come to learn, though, is that it’s not necessarily fiction per se, but narrative.  Story.  We are doing a coming-of-age literature unit and my biggest hope is that my students, just beginning some of the uphill climbs of growing up, can find hope in the ways that the protagonists they are reading get through their struggles.  I want them to see that in studying the classic story mountain structure, that there are hills and valleys that are sometimes hard to make sense of or see their way out of, but that resolution comes.  Often, it is not what was originally sought after, but there is a knowledge and a wisdom that appears after making it through.

Everything seems to be aligning, though, because recently I’ve come across two nonfiction resources that have discussed this same phenomena: that understanding narrative can help people emotionally process through life better.

The first came from the New York Times a few months ago in an article called The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler.  In summary, he discusses the idea that the best thing that a parent can do for a child is to develop a strong family narrative.  He says when child feels that he or she is a part of something greater, the child will be more resilient in challenges, feel safer, and even happier.  The most interesting part, though, was that when they studied children who knew their family narrative, there was a delineation among them that produced a stronger child, still.  The three major narratives were “We worked hard to get all that we have, and we made it” “we had it all and lost it, and we made it” and the third created the most emotionally healthy children: “we’ve had some ups and some downs, and we made it.”

The second comes from Brene Brown, a writer and researcher whose work has been really influential for me since I first saw her Ted Talks in the fall and recently began reading The Gifts of Imperfection with a good friend of mine (one of my few non fiction books this year).  Obviously, she speaks about our state as imperfect humans, and the fact that despite we know that about ourselves, we often live in ways that demonstrate the opposite.  One of the core tenets of her research has been “when we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness–the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.” Own our story.  This is a life changing sentence, that brings me back to the idea that the greater understanding we have of the “mountain of action” structure of life–knowing their will be new starts, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution–the healthier we become.

On that note, I’m looking forward to making my summer reading list, which I’ll be posting about soon.

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