Now, whereas psychoanalysis is a private matter with the narrative happening behind closed doors, accessible only to the patient and doctor, Shamanism is radically different. In a shamanic ritual, the narrative is performed; it becomes known to an extended family or even an entire local community. In Korea, shamanic ceremonies are still held for the entire nation! (One might skeptically conclude that the public nature of shamanic treatments should enhance the placebo effect through public pressure, but then perhaps this is also why psychotherapy is notoriously slow, expensive, and unreliable!)
Case #2: Stone Soup
Early in 1998, shortly after the birth of our daughter, my wife Anne began to use the phrase "stone soup" with annoying frequency. This was odd, because she had never, to my knowledge, used that allusion before. Even odder was the fact that she often alluded to stone soup inappropriately even after I pointed out to her, many times, that she was misusing it. She is a Ph.D. with finely–honed analytic skills and I teach Creative Writing, so such a lapse of judgment was pretty unusual. (If you are unfamiliar with the story of "Stone Soup," you may read it here).
The following month, bitter winter in Michigan, Anne began to bring home dark cherries from the supermarket. She has always hated cherries and does not eat them even now. She said she was buying them for me, and she thought it odd that I would point out to her — given the trouble she had gone through — that she had never bothered buying them for me in past winters. These were large, dark cherries, and I enjoyed them because they reminded me of my days in California's agricultural valley. I didn't protest after that.
By March, Anne was bringing home rocks, actual rocks from the parking lots of K—Mart and other stores. I was alarmed, and reminded her that what she was doing was illegal, and that she could get in trouble if she got caught. But she was only bringing home a few stones at a time, she said. The stores wouldn't miss them, and she was going to line them up along the west side of the house to create a border for the garden she would plant in the spring. They were pretty stones, in a range of colors, about the size of mangoes, and Anne even drew the curved outline of the border she wanted to make, showing how attractively the stones would line up. I told Anne we could buy some rocks from a landscaping store if she wanted them so badly, but she continued to bring them home, a few at a time, under the front seat of the car.
The allusions to stone soup, the cherries, and the parking lot rocks continued together. In April, "the cruelest month," Anne went to the doctor, suffering terrible pains in her right side. She was diagnosed with gallstones and had to have immediate surgery.
If you were reading a short story now, you would probably find this sequence of events wrought with foreshadowing and symbolism, sort of like an overwritten Victorian novel full of implausible convolutions in plot and heavy–handed rhetoric. Perhaps you could then read the gallstones as divine punishment for the theft of parking lot rocks. Or you could read the purchase of cherries, which contain seeds called "pits" or "stones" as foreshadowing. Or the "stone soup" allusions — which have to do with the methodical, clever, and deceptive accumulation of material — could be foreshadowing. But this was reality.
While Anne was in the hospital, I did some web research and looked in some medical texts that showed photographs of gallstones. When they clog the bile ducts, gallstones line up in curved formation, varying in color and shape pretty much like smooth garden stones. I discovered another surprise as I researched remedies for gallstones: one of the herbal remedies is black cherries. And as this connection got the gears turning in my associative mind, I made yet another connection. According to her doctor, Anne's gallstones were a result of her pregnancy (apparently, it is not unusual for a woman in her late 30s to get gallstones after having a baby). So this fact connected the cherries and the baby for me, reminding me of the folk tune "I Gave My Love a Cherry without a Stone." The song happens to end with the line, "I gave my Love a baby with no crying." Our daughter had not cried when she was born.
So what is one to make of this series of events? They confirmed for me the fact that our lives are like badly written novels. Our lives are full of coincidences, synchronicities, odd insights, and weird incidents that weave together into a continuous narrative around us. Like badly written novels, these life narratives are often heavy handed foreshadowings of important things to come. If we pay attention while reading a novel — particularly to a series of associated odd events — they may give us clues to important negative or positive things that come later in the text. Anne was trying to tell herself (and me) that she had gallstones, but since we were living our lives and not reading a novel, the message was lost.
Since the gallstone incident, I have noticed this sort of thing happening all the time. If I go back and isolate a significant period in my life, whether it be the span of a few weeks or a timeframe of years, I can see the same kind of narrative structure revealing itself. It would be easy to stop here and invoke some sort of religious or cosmological answer, but I think the more useful answer is simpler: Pay attention to your actions because you are constantly communicating with yourself.
You are in a continuous symbolic performance, writing the story of your life as you live it. You do not need a shaman or a psychoanalyst to be your go–between, because most of the symbolic vocabulary you use is easily accessible to your conscious self if you just read your own life slowly and attentively the way you might study a novel. In fact, the analogy works quite nicely: When you are truly engaged in a good novel, you lose sight of the fact that you are reading; you are in the novel, so to speak, and all of its structures are invisible to you. By the same token, you lose sight of the structures of your own life story when you are excitedly engaged in living it. Slow down. Pause. Re–read. Remember.
Every writer knows that writing is therapeutic, and even non–writers know that the simple act of giving voice to your problems (or to the symptoms of your illness) makes things a little better. All we need is someone who reads or listens. In some cases, sadly, that someone is only ourselves. But now there is a glimmer of hope from the medical profession, formerly notorious for its inability to listen.
Rita Charon, an M.D. and Ph.D., had a profound breakthrough when she made the connection between healing and storytelling. She says:
I realized that what patients paid me to do was to listen very expertly and attentively to extraordinarily complicated narratives — told in words, gestures, silences, tracings, images, and physical findings — and to cohere all these stories into something that made at least provisional sense, enough sense, that is, to be acted on. I was the interpreter of these often contradictory accounts of events that are, by definition, difficult to tell. Pain, suffering, worry, anguish, the sense of something just not being right: these are very hard to nail down in words, and so patients have very demanding "telling" tasks while doctors have very demanding "listening" tasks.
Charon coined the term "narrative medicine" in her 2001 article in The Annals of Internal Medicine, but she had been working with patients and their telling of stories for several years by then. She was so convinced of the role of storytelling and listening that she took the time to study literature and creative writing formally, getting a Ph.D. Her influence on the medical school at Columbia was great enough that all second year medical students there are now required to take a seminar on Narrative Medicine.
Charon's use of language is different from other doctors. Here, where she describes her interviewing of a patient, one can see her literary training quite clearly:
I listen not only for the content of his narrative but for its form — its temporal course, its images, its associated subplots, its silences, where he chooses to begin in telling of himself, how he sequences symptoms with other life events . . . . After a few minutes, he stops talking and begins to weep. I ask him why he cries. He says, "No one has ever let me do this before."
Rita Charon currently directs the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia. As you think of life as a novel, consider these interesting associations: Rita, in the Vedic tradition, is the principle of cosmic order that gave rise to the idea of dharma (the idea of appropriate and virtuous behavior); Charon, in Greek mythology, is the ferryman who takes the spirits of the dead across the River Acheron. The spirits are brought to him by Hermes, the god whose symbol, the caduceus, happens to be the symbol of the western medical profession.