Where do we go when story falls apart?

We are story-making beings: we have to create stories out of our experiences. Story is the core thought pattern for sense-making. As things happen to us and around us, we cope by making life events into a story that organizes our experiences into a pattern. We tell ourselves these stories because we need a narrative inside which we can continue to make sense of our lives by linking one experience to the next. We tell each other these stories to help us cope collectively, to seat our experiences within a larger social story, and to seek shared meaning and belonging. Who gets my story? Who believes me? Who sees the world in a similar enough way? How does my story impact or contribute to the stories of my communities?

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, we are living in a tremendously chaotic, dissociated story-field in which the expected narrative of our lives is falling apart at multiple levels. Many of us are in some level of shock and trauma in at least one part of our story. As this occurs, we need to look for some area of our story that is holding steady, or where we can create a sense of narrative organization.

Where do we go when our story is falling apart? Well, I go to another level of story. And over my many years of working with writing students, writing books about writing, and living my own decades, I have come to think of story’s functioning at three levels: Chronos, Epos, and Kairos.

Chronos, is how we live through our personal lives. We think of ourselves as living through time, and our stories reference time constantly because we are linking our life experiences and creating a personal field of meaning. “When I was young…. Now I understand… Last summer… next week… I knew someone once who… oh that happened to me, too….”  Chronos is how we place ourselves in our own lives, how we connect to the lives of others with a sense of the kinship of all experience. These stories make maps of the scope of personal experiences.

So when my beautiful friend Kelly, a robust, heart-open man in his early 60’s was diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer, his story of himself and

Kelly & Diana Lindsay.

his life, his Chronos, fell apart. In response, he jumped to Kairos, and created a place and cast of characters called The Farmhouse, where he personified the illness, and his psyche broke into multiple voices and personalities so he could respond to his situation with incredible love and compassion. This was not a breakdown, but an amazing breakthrough. He began recording his dialogues and insights on his Caring Bridge site and invited his family and community into the transformation of his experience. “They were just waiting for me,” Kelly said of the characters in this alternative reality, “until I knew how to get through to them so they could teach me.”

Epos, is life embedded in the Times we live through: the country, the social/economic/ethnic strata: how we fit (or don’t fit) into the sense of collective. These are stories of movements, political affiliations, national identities, regionals to global crises, that reference our lives within a horizontal matrix. “As Americans we are… Now in Australia the fires show us… even in refugee camps there are children learning to read…” These stories speak of the issues that surround us: immigration, corruption, economic systems, Brexit, Standing Rock, Fridays for Future,  Hong Kong protests, hurricanes, earthquakes etc. Inside every headline, human interest stories show us the pattern of our responses: how we rise with increased anger, violence, hatred  or increased compassion, service, love.

So, in the middle of unrelenting disasters and the grief of paying attention, of worrying about our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, and trying to find one way and the next to feel like contributing persons in the midst of all this: we got a puppy. She is a complete distraction and a commitment to maintain our health as best we can. Her arrival has complex layers of meaning, not for this space, but she is doing the work of revivifying our Chronos to help us maintain resilience in the Epos.

Kairos is life held within timelessness, a spiritual frame that may or may not be religious, but places our lives, our collective lives, and our planetary life within a sense of the Divine, or Presence, or trust in Mystery and Meaning beyond our capacity to understand. Kairos is life viewed through Creation stories, myth, and mysticism. Kairos is the story of the Great Religions and spiritual traditions, of Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and Marvel movies. We can see our need to attach to Kairos story across this spectrum from “Jesus Saves” to “May the Force be with you.”

So, one way I am surviving the current political mayhem, especially the threats to “self-evident truths” that have been part of our national fabric from the beginning, is by telling myself that it is necessary for these structures to fall apart so that new structures can emerge. And that new stories need to emerge: truths that have not been granted voice in the Epos of America. This country, proclaiming itself “the greatest nation on earth,” has always been a white supremacist society founded on genocide against indigenous peoples, built on the labor of slaves and immigrants, and devoted to the devastation of the continent on which it stands. Everything that has been repressed is coming to the surface. So I stand strong in my Chronos, owning my racial privilege, looking for ways to heal all that is close in to my life. And I devote myself to spiritual practices that uphold my trust with the Kairos, admitting I do not know what is really happening: I am just one tiny cell in the great body of life on earth.

I will close with three quotes that illustrate ways people have articulated each level of story:

Chronos: “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And you know you’re winning! I have Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And—given the right circumstance—being different is a superpower.” –Greta Thunberg, Instagram

Epos: “As a longtime advocate for children and the Earth—and in this year when my song “Baby Beluga” turns 40—I feel I must speak out for the sake of my beloved fans, the “beluga grads” and their kids, on the climate emergency we all face…. People live with faith that one day will lead to another, that their future lives are not in question, that their kids can imagine adulthood.” For many, that’s getting increasingly difficult… We have ten years to secure the future, to do what has never been done before.”Raffi Cavoukian

Kairos: “The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.”  — Joanna Macy, New Year’s remarks, 2020

My wish for you in the new year: that you keep finding places to stand in your story that allow you to thrive. I will meet you there.