Slowing Down into Story
I have long been prone to speeding up. Well-indoctrinated with the capitalist values of efficiency and productivity, I have done my part modeling the mythical message that if one goes just a little faster and takes on a little more, then we will arrive at the world we want. I work in a field – healthcare – structured to hardly ever allow anything less than a continuous dehumanizing rush. Faced now with a raging pandemic and climate catastrophe, both fueled by systems of oppression, I easily slip into a frenetic sense of urgency.
But, maybe this “moment,” which really is no longer and never was just a moment, calls us to slow. Visionaries are talking about degrowth, honoring the silence between the words, and asking us to soften our voices to hear what the Earth has to teach us.
So, a few months into the fellowship and I am feeling the tug to slow. Courses and conversation related to storytelling and narrative medicine are offering the necessary friction to slow me down. Those generative spaces have opened up three powerful areas of learning and questions for me.
First, I have come to see patients as poets. Leaders in narrative medicine, such a Rita Charon, describe poetry as a “drop into total experience.” In our courses, we have explored the ways in which the poetic form allows entangled and messy experience and emotion to find free expression. In clinical encounter, patients are the poets coming in with the layers of total experience. Clinicians on the other hand are prose essayists, trying to construct and scribble a logical, linear experience of illness. And this difference creates dramatic tension and profound mismatch of perception, representation, and interpretation. Due to the time and production pressures, clinical systems are trying mightily these days to get patients to be better essayists: having patients set agendas, identify their key problems ahead of time, share their clinical history ahead of an appointment in the electronic medical record, etc. However, what if clinicians prepared ourselves in ways that better allowed us to appreciate and experience the poetry (and wonder) of patients?
Second, I am beginning to see that there is bodywork to story-telling and story-listening. As I learn to “closely read” creative writing and pay attention to how stories “work on me,” I’m finding that stories are not just cognitive. Stories have an embodied element to them and if I can pay attention to that, the stories more deeply lodge in my memory, expand my curiosity, and call for humility. Clinicians, who listen to stories all day long whether they think of it as that or not, have no training in the embodied aspects of story. What might happen if clinicians started to consider how the stories of patients and themselves reverberate through their bodies? Drawing on the work of somatic therapist Resmaa Menakem in “My Grandmother’s Hands,” I wonder if we might then more effectively receive and metabolize the suffering we encounter in clinical spaces?
Finally, I am learning to read and listen as if each word matters. Years of training and practice in medicine and anthropology set me up to believe that reading as many books and journals as possible was the ideal. The narrative medicine courses thus far have challenged that belief as they have us reading a few paragraphs of a story at a time or a one-page poem. We are called to recognize that each word was chosen for a reason and exploring those reasons creates deep meaning. I am finding that this type of detailed, slowed reading is stirring up much deeper questions and meaning. What if in medicine we cared enough to listen as if each word matters? What harm might be undone?
I am so grateful for the ways the fellowship has thus far allowed me to slow down into story.