Last summer I attended a conference on life coaching and was surprised when the presenter adamantly stated that the coaching process is not about healing. When I queried what the focus of coaching might be, she responded that it’s goals are to work with a client around personal growth, increased perspective, new skills to facilitate change and increased confidence and competence to handle one’s personal challenges. Then what is healing, I asked?
I returned home to my dictionary to increase my own understanding of healing. Webster does not allude to gaping physical, emotional or spiritual wounds. Therapy is not mentioned. Healing, Webster states, is “to make sound or whole”. Healing is “to cause an undesirable condition to be overcome”. Healing means “to return to a sound state”. Is there any time when we are not trying to do the work of healing, I wondered?
I thought back to another workshop that my husband, Breck, and I had participated in last fall. Gathered together at a beach front cottage on an early November weekend, we were led by Jay O’Callahan through three intensive days of writing, telling stories, and spontaneous dramatic exercises to stretch our creative muscles and tap our hidden potential.
Throughout the weekend, each of us was encouraged to reach deep inside, to find creative outlets to explore and express the ideas, feelings and experiences that resonated meaningfully for us. We experimented with multiple, creative ways to bring our experiences to the surface that we might learn from them. As we shared our stories with others, we hoped that they might be touched and learn from them as well. I did not fully realize the transformative power of the experience until we returned home, and brought our newfound understanding of the power of story back to our family.
We had left our four children between the ages of nine and fourteen at home with a sitter. It was the longest period of time that they had ever been apart from the two of us. We knew that they would require some special time and attention upon our re-entry to restore the family back to wholeness, to return us to a “sound state”. We weren’t sure what the process would look like. We just anticipated a transition that would be on some level challenging for all of us. We were joining back together as a family, coming from largely separate and varying experiences.
We gathered the jubilant hallway huggers who greeted us at the home door, and led them over to the couch to hear about their experiences of the weekend. Our circle of family, telling their stories, felt oddly reminiscent of what we had just left behind. There were no structured exercises or conscious attempts to unfold creative expression, but there was an energetic, engaged and respectful gathering of eager tellers and listeners popping at the seams to share their experiences of time apart from each other. We listened with intent and followed their stories with appreciations and open-ended questions. We did not try to be therapists or coaches, but I can guarantee that what followed was healing.
One by one we heard from each child about their soccer games, rented movies,
dinner on the town, playmates and adventures. When their enthusiastic reports of weekend activities began to slow in delivery, one of the kids paused and
asked, “What did you do this weekend? Where were you, anyway?” And rather than respond with a litany of listed activities, their dad decided to show them rather than tell them.
“We were given a “spark” of an idea, and then encouraged to make up stories like this,” he began. “Once upon a time in the deep dark wood, there was a noise….” And he told the fairy tale story he had made up at the workshop about Andy the Ant who had spent his life marching in a line, and decided to break out of that line and see life from a different perspective. At the end of his two-minute story, he asked for appreciations.
“Gee, Dad, I didn’t know you could tell a story like that.” said one.
“I loved the way you made Andy’s voice sound different from yours”, said another.
Our oldest, aged 14, chimed in, “I really like the moral of the story.”
“What do you think the moral is?”, Breck asked.
“It’s good to break out of what you always do, and try something different. Take
a risk and see what happens.”
“Great!” said Breck.
She continued, “I think I’ll skip school tomorrow. Try something different. Maybe see the world from a new perspective!” Oooops.
Then our youngest child, nine-year-old Ross, piped in, “Give me a spark! I want to light a story too!”
And Breck suggested he use the same spark and see what came for him.
“I don’t want to start in a forest. I want to start in a jungle!” Ross exclaimed.
“Then start in a jungle!” we encouraged him.
Here is what he said.
“Once upon a time in the deep, dark jungle, there was a noise. The strong,
brave cheetah heard the noise and went to see what it was. He found a Mom,
sitting in her rocking chair, quietly knitting and crying. The cheetah
asked her why she was crying. She told the cheetah that a big, bad ogre had
stolen her child away, and turned him into a ball of yarn. She was trying
to knit him back into a boy. The cheetah noticed that all the Moms in the
jungle were crying and knitting. The ogre had turned all the children of
the jungle into yarn. None of the mothers were able to hug and rock and play with their children, and they missed them so much.
So the strong, brave, cheetah told the mothers not to worry
because he would go and talk to the ogre. The mothers were worried for his danger, but he was not scared. He ran deep into the jungle until he found the
ogre’s cave. He could see the ogre dancing around piles of yarn. The
cheetah decided to just go up and talk to him about what he had done. So,
the brave little cheetah just walked up to the ogre and said “Hi”. The ogre was so surprised because no one had ever said hello to him before that he threw his big club up into the air. It came down and hit him on the head and knocked him out.
Immediately, all the yarn turned back into children, and the cheetah led them home to their happy mothers, who could hug them and love them once again.
The people in the jungle worried that the ogre might come back and try to take their children again. The cheetah told them not to worry. Just say hi to the ogre, he told them. He won’t expect it. He might even knock himself out again.”
I was sitting in the rocking chair as my son told his story. A knitting bag holding a project we had started together before I had left for the weekend was nestled not far away in the corner. I listened to his story with my eyes closed, and thought what a brave little cheetah he had been in our absence. When his story had finished, he snuggled into my arms and asked if I liked it. I commented on the strong characters, creative solutions and the especially happy ending that brought everyone back together. Ross added that the ogre wasn’t really all that bad. “Sometimes its fun to have an adventure as long as you know that everyone can get back together in the end.”
As we sat around our circle, knitting ourselves back together as a family, I realized each person was using story to connect, to make sense of the their own and each other’s experience. Through both the telling and the listening, we were all re-engaging, growing and healing, individually and together, through the process.
Both personal stories and imaginative stories went around the couch that day. Through the comparing, the integrating and meaning making we each brought to our listening, I believe we began to understand and appreciate each other and ourselves in new ways. I realized from this experience how strongly I disagreed with the personal coach at the conference last summer. Whether conscious or unconscious, as human beings in relationship we are always engaged in the work of healing. We are all trying to “return to a sound state” and ”make ourselves whole.” Is there ever a time when we aren’t?