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
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.
Thank you for this! It goes right to the heart and tells me why I have been feeling the need to ground in my own holy frequency field, as though we are all threatened by a waking nightmare with its illogical fluctuations and constant discomfort.
Exactly! and the work of the elder is to hold that holy frequency. thank you for what you are doing! Christina
Your words ring true and bring the feeling in my heart meaning, Christina. For us it was a kitten. Best regards in this new year of 2020 vision.
Thank you for this fine blending of time, content and heart! It helps my vision clear up!
Love to you and HO! to the pup.
Thank you, too, Judy for all the connections to nature and the reminders to do so, that keep me sane. Green blessings, CB
Yes. Yes. Here’s to waking up and doing what needs to get done! Thanks for these three story levels, Christina. Very helpful. Linette XXX
Take care of yourself Down Under, dear friend. You know more than many how the Epos is smoking and what it’s like to stand on shaky ground.
I will find places to stand in my story that allow me to feel, to think, to love and to thrive. I go to those places because I know you will meet me there. You are the beacon.
WE are beacons together, sister! No one shines alone.
Dear Christina and Ann,
Thank you for your beautiful Peer Spirit Blog,
We all needed it. Where to turn in these turbulent and fearful times. I would like to comment on the blog but it will not let me. That is also true for the last time when Ann wrote about your new puppy. I don’t know how to fix it so I can respond. You puppy is lovely and I am so glad you have her. Did your previous dog die or are you adding a second one?
What I would say as a comment is that it feels like the ground under our feet is eroding, and that is true even from Canada. Here we just hang on to each other but that does not mean we don’t feel the uncertainty.
Yesterday our national newspaper the Globe and Mail, posted a full page from the Iranian-Canadian Community. It ‘s headline said”
“Thank You Canada for your Unforgettable Compassion”
“We thank you and will cherish your kindness forever”
This was in response to our country’s response to the Iranian air disaster that killed 57 Canadians.
When I read this piece in the paper I bowed my head and sobbed. This, I said is my country. This is who we are. This is what I will hang on to in these troubled times.
The piece ends with this poem by a Persian poet, Sa’adi of the 13th. century.
Human Beings are members of a whole
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain
The name of human you cannot remain.
I send you this dear friends knowing that we share our deep connection now and always.
Much love ,
Patricia Houston, Victoria, BC
New Year Greetings to you and Ann, Christina. I hear your voice so clearly in this piece – thank you. It arrived in my mail box at “the perfect moment”. I am grateful.
The perfect moment of arrival is one of the saving graces of this time.
Thank you Christina and others whose replies deepen and enrich your message. I am present NOW as never before to our interconnectedness – all beings – and being together in families, in friendship, in communities, with the natural world is vital.
This sense of interconnectedness is what I think of as “the other and more ancient and indestructible Internet.” Be well.
Dear Christina and Ann,
This past night, one of our British colleagues from the Art of Hosting network called a midnight Zoom; to collectively witness the moment when the United Kingdom left the European Union. Lots of grief; and lots of love.
It turned out that most of us (from ca 8 countries) who met in the call know each other well; at the level of deep trust and friendship (quite a miracle – fitting the Imbolc night 🙂 ). So we acknowledged the love that we have for each other that is the base for everything that we have done so far, or might do together in the future. From bearing witness to hosting complex dialogues on tough topics.
In a way, we journeyed from Epos to Kairos.
There were also deeper questions present, inviting us to wonder, to deeper listening (to each other, to the land, to a greater story, to the hidden wholeness …), to futures that want to live through us.
Thank you for naming Kairos-level of story. We all meet there 🙂
Thank you for letting us see into this moment of ceremony and deep story. I have removed your personal comments to us… and wanted to share this image to others, there are those in Europe and around the world this will inspire. love, cb
Thank you Christina. I feel all of this, too. For me it was a recent trip to Costa Rica that wrapped around and soothed my broken heart. I love the Rachel Carson quote: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Love to you, GG
Ahh Nature, the greatest of all survivors. Have you seen the documentary, Fantastic Fungi? It proves (to me anyway) that mycillia are the dominant species.
Christina – I have always appreciated your ability to provide some structure to help us understand how our stories fit in with the stories of the time and place in which we are living our lives. As you suggest, it is indeed time for many “self-evident truths,” especially those that create suffering by dividing and separating us, to fall apart and make room for deeper truths to emerge. Thank you for wishing that we all keep finding places to stand in our stories and thrive. I wish the same for you and all your beloveds. Sending my love and blessings for this new decade.
Thank you so much, Jude. Wishing you thriving as well, and the flourishing of your wisdom and teaching.
Thank you Christina as we woke up in Canada today with a second case of presumptive Coronavirus on top of everything else going on in our world. You remind to stay grounded and close to nature as much as I can. Yes a new order is emerging and there is more chaos to come. Thank you for the reminder of my
responsibility as I move into elderhood.
I see you in my mind walking your beautiful dogs through the beautiful fields. Take care, friend.
Dear Christina, thank you so much for this post! I very much needed to read it and “listen with the ear of my heart,” to paraphrase St. Benedict. We don’t have any pets, but my response to the current chaos (although I didn’t realize this until I read your powerful words today) was to begin working on a certificate in Narrative Healthcare. I have no idea as of yet about what I might do with this when I’m finished, but it’s pulling me strongly once again into Story, which, as we know, is everything. Much love to you and Ann!
Wow, Barbara, this is such a great use of your skills, sensitivity and long experience with life story.
I want to share with you an experience that I recently had with my ten yer old grandson in which an element of my own shadow nature became very apparent to me and led the way to thinking about how important it is that we teach our grands how to collaborate rather than compete. I’m going to be writing more about this powerful but subtle experience of waking up to where I personally contribute to the collective shadow under which we are all laboring right now.
Which email address would you like me to send to? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brilliant piece, as always.
Looking forward to your wisdom, dear Meredith. My public email is: email@example.com
Oh. Thank you so much for this!! It was just the day to read it! A great gift.
Smooches and pooches from one side of the island to the other. Keep writing over there!
Dear Christina, thank you for this brilliant piece. I am an elder, and your explanation of that to do when one’s story falls apart gives me both comfort and direction to go forward. It also explains why I feel the need so strongly to be grounded in kairos. Oh, and we also got a new puppy! She is a beautiful golden retriever, now almost eight months old. Hugs to your own little spark of joy!
You are welcome, Susan. Joy in the morning, and joy in the mourning.
Oh this resonated with me, dear Christina. Thank you for this, as it came at a time I have felt so vulnerable. And I saw you and Ann walking yesterday and thought that looked like a new puppy.
Yes, she is a dear… and we miss our dear old Gracie/corgi-girl… and wish she was here to help us train in Vivi. All is well though overall. Blessings, C&A
Thanks Christina. Very helpful on my own journey to retain wholeness.
I so appreciate this insight, for myself and another. Stories change constantly as the ebb and flow of the tide. Yes and the journey continues. Yakoke, thank you Christina.
Thank you dear Christina, this article is a lighthouse in these stormy seas. I know you were primarily thinking of America as you wrote this, but this resonates in many places around the world, including my country, India. I like many others have been trying to cope with logic and history, music and story and mythology and practices of the spirit, but it has been an uphill task … this article helps. Thank you.
Dear Erica, Thank you for reaching out–I am aware that this is a global issue and that we as a human family are being called into the new story of who we are. Blessings to your work and life and know that millions around the world are awaking.
Your post has been sitting in my inbox all these days, waiting to be read. Political pleas for money to fight off the darkness come and are deleted and I despair that any hope of shining a light is but a fading whisper in the wilderness. Last night I decided I must stop watching MSNBC and reading the news headlines on my phone. I unsubscribed to “Stop Republicans.” This morning I finally read your post. “It is necessary for these structures to fall apart so that new structures can emerge.” It’s the way it’s always been, hasn’t it? Gathering up the winter blowdown every spring and starting again with fresh awareness of what is above and around us. You are one of the lights. We are all the small beams that will bring us back. Thank you.
And YOU are writing such beauty as well. I loved your piece on Republican-lineage in your familiy. I hope anyone reading this comment will also go there.