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Narrative and Meaning Making

By Laurence Barrett

In times of transformational change, we experience a wound or trauma in our experience of reality. We can no longer make sense of the world and no longer have the feeling of 'going on being' that underpins our psychological wellbeing. At an archetypal and symbolic level, we are facing death and the risk of falling apart. The psychologist Arthur W Frank suggested, that at this point we typically tell three sorts of stories:

Restitution narratives: Here we convince ourselves that the world will broadly return to normal. We will be saved by the experts or by expertise. The problem here is that transformational change is by definition transformational. We will no longer have what we had, or least, not in the same form.

Chaos narratives: Here we have no anchor points and enter a period of suffering, confusion and disorientation. All our usual defences and survival strategies have failed us and we are flailing around without hope.

Quest narratives: Here we begin to accept our state and in the calm that follows can begin to find a way out. We can tell our story onwards in new ways and are more focused on what next, than on what has been. We begin to use the problems we face as opportunities for something new to emerge. We understand that the pain we have suffered has meaning and potential.

At the moment, I am seeing a lot of restitution narratives about the pandemic and its implications. These are usually told by leaders and 'experts' whose predictions may simply be defence against their own anxiety; an anxiety that in the new world they will no longer have relevance and will have to start again, perhaps even from a level playing field or worse...from behind.

Frank's research suggests that allowing space for the chaos narrative is the crucial step that we must all take. We must acknowledge that we don't know, and be open to new possibilities.

The only thing we can probably say with confidence, is that our predictions of the world over the next decade will be wrong. Now is a time for observation, patience, creativity and most of all humility.

The secret of the Quest narrative is that it is seen most clearly in the rear view mirror....


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