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On A Path of Narrative Therapy

Waymarkers for the Lost

I believe in the power of stories to heal. As a young child, my first creative writing was usually motivated by an effort to explore and resolve issues within myself and my environment, but then a formal, Westernised education taught me properly about psychology and suppressed my instinct for it. I learned technical models and manualised pathways towards healing, but no one ever mentioned story or soul. Only after I left my work as a counsellor and spent time in a Waldorf learning environment did I rediscover that old instinct for narrative therapy. I've since come to believe very strongly that no one can achieve true healing from their griefs and troubles without weaving together mind, body, spirit, environment, and heritage into a revitalised story for their soul.

kin fables

Throughout my training, I had caught glimpses of this paradigm when talking with Maori practitioners. So I wasn't surprised to read recently about a new project in which Maori mental health workers are using narrative therapy to help people heal from psychological problems. In this programme, the workers are known as Mataroa, or change-makers. They use the stories of the gods to draw whanau ("family," as opposed to patient or client) back into their culture and rediscover their strong, beautiful Maori identity there. They are decolonising mental health and achieving wonderful results.

Unfortunately for those of us with a Western heritage, our culture has become so unravelled, we have experienced such a diaspora - both physically and spiritually - that it's hard to say if anything truly resonant remains for some of us. It's perhaps easier for those who dwell in the north, where the mythic stories of life were born. For those of us in different lands, descended from European pioneers, disconnected from the very winds that sang our heritage, a different path may be needed. Our ancestors may have conquered the dominion of natives, but in many cases they also deprived us of our mythic heritage. Maori suffer from colonisation trauma, and dare I say it many of we Pakeha (white Europeans) suffer from it too, but in a different way.

And so we have two choices. We can rediscover that heritage, which many people are doing. Or we can make a healing path shaped from our own land, laid across with timbers and ferns from various ancient stories as well as private histories, but sung with the voice of our individual souls. A path for an ancient gypsying heritage.

I believe some of those timbers must be made of grief. We rightly speak of how native peoples have been terribly hurt, and we ought also acknowledge how many of our recent generations feel bereft, stranded from any sense of native belonging, their heritage now no more than diminishing churches and children's fairy stories.

I used to live the narrative of the year through it's cycle of pagan-inspired festivals, but as I recently mentioned, I am now beginning to rework this because the narrative is almost meaningless in my part of the world. I'm finding the same thing with individual narrative therapy. Increasingly, heritage is a box of broken and jumbled things. For example, for me personally, although I am from Irish and English heritage, it is in the stories from Wales, the French tales, and some Greek myths, where I find connection. But then, how many of us can trace our lineage back to one land and yet our genetics to many? Stories from all the different communities of the past can be a gift for everyone now.  The storyteller must listen and watch carefully, generously, deeply for what is needed for each one-who-heals, so that the work to create a rich personal culture can be done. It is harder, more complex work than simply taking from one specific culture, as some lucky people can do, but when your belonging has been broken, it is perhaps the most important work of all.

And maybe those who feel lost will find their first strands of belonging in that lostness, in the drift of humanity away from old lands - they will call themselves community, although they may never meet each other on their distant shores. A community of dreamers, longing for story, longing for home.


  1. Sarah, this says what I have been unable to say.

  2. oh, yes...to make a whole from what was broken (and in a colonized land, both indigenes and colonizers are broken) is the work...

    i would like to think that every person could make him/herself whole using story. narrative is how we make sense of the world. i work with broken adults and children often, and they are hungry for narrative...i feel it is the most healing thing one can offer, frequently.


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