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Story and Well-being

“We humans have a clear preference to create and tell stories, and narrative integration is the weaving of facts and felt experiences of our lives into coherent stories that make sense of our inner and outer worlds…Stories are not just fun ways of learning — they are the biological foundation for how the brain learns and remembers best.” *

— Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, professor of psychiatry UCLA, speaker, and author; his latest book is Mindsight.

The other morning while eating breakfast and staring out the large picture window in our dining room, I noticed the faintest outline of a bird on one of the panes—the two spread wings in flight, the full, feathered breast and curve of its throat etched into the thin layer of dust that covers windows now that the rainy season is over.

There was no lifeless body on the patio, nor had the dogs left a feathered offering at the kitchen door. I hoped the bird had hit softly against the unforgiving glass—perhaps it had only just taken off from the pond after a cool sip of water, flown toward a reflection, and bump! Hopefully it had rested in the branches of a nearby mesquite tree, stunned yet alive. Maybe now it was singing.

The markings on the window were as delicate and fine as a real etching. The beauty of it lay in stark contrast against the imagined thud of the bird’s body as it hit the glass. As happens often with me, the invisible glass, the bird in flight, its fate… all became connected to a conversation from the night before, and this line formed in my mind:

How brutally hard the unseen can be…

In this case, the unseen can be a glossed-over or forgotten event in history, unknown facts about family or unexplored aspects of ourselves, vague or contradictory visions and goals of a company or a government. All are stories. Yet when there are missing pieces to key stories an edgy dissonance can be felt in one’s body, our emotions can seem out of control, and our ability to think well and clearly can become compromised. Often, with our human need to find meaning and create order around us, we make up stories based on conjecture to fill in the mystifying gaps.

In the research of child/parent attachment, one study has shown that the strongest indicator of a secure attachment between a child and parent is the amount of self-understanding a parent comes to in the telling of one’s own life story; in other words how much meaning they have gathered from their own childhood/early life events.*

The story I’d heard the night before finding the bird’s outline on the window was a narrative integration; an experience (brought about through story) of understanding myself and others more fully. It wasn’t a new experience, yet I am always grateful for these moments. Compassion and connection open up. I feel lighter and clearer physically—whatever edgy dissonance is hanging around disappears. This ability to understand and integrate our experiences is vital for our well-being, not only personally and for families, but in organizations of all kinds, and even countries.

I’m a movie buff. Maybe because they too are stories. Three movies come to mind as I write and continue to connect to the powerful integrity of story. Invictus takes place in South Africa on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s election as president. It is a story about the country’s national sport of rugby and the country’s identity as a cohesive nation.

The movie City Island is a brilliant portrayal of how secrets and untold stories within a blatantly dysfunctional family lead to violent misunderstandings, separation, and lies.

Extraordinary Measures is a film about family, a genetic defect that affects children, and two parents’ struggle to find a cure in the rarefied world of medical research and the pharmaceutical industry.

These movies are potent, and positive, exemplifying the undeniable strength of story to shape individual lives, families, the workplace, and entire cultures. (Note: All three movie titles link to their respective movie trailers)

So you are maybe asking:

“How did her mind go from seeing the imprint of a bird on a dusty window to a personal conversation to child/parent attachment to South Africa, the Bronx, and large pharmaceutical companies?

Through the compelling interconnectedness birthed from story. I invite you to listen, watch, and feel for any gaps in your own stories, whether inside of yourself, at home, work, or out in the world. Be open to conversations, questions, and the synchronistic chance meeting, phone call, or object that brings a missing piece of story to your attention. Then be amazed, as I was (and will continue to be) by the well-being felt in every nook and cranny of your being.

* from an article in the NeuroLeadership Journal, Issue 2, 2009.


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