Narrative Competence and Hurting People

I have learned from my patients, that my TOLERANCE – ACCEPTANCE – AGREEMENT – MUTUALISM modality works well for those who are hurt by and tired of intra-interpersonal tolerance. What I’ve found, in my discussion with this modality, there is a human absolute: hurt people hurt people. Yet, “ . . . if we can love until it hurts there can be no more hurt just more love,” Mother Theresa. Within the panorama of this perspective hurt becomes an invitation to love . . . . Intra-interpersonal relationships (IPRs) that are characterized by tolerance alone isolate and trap us within a psychological war-zone where suffering has become an isolated state of pain. Imagine, your state of pain, being dropped out of an airplane to parachute into an IPR psychological war-zone of anticipated death and suffering, where are you going to land? The goal being to survive. In other words, if we survive our pain event, we will suffer because of it.

Suffering requires a measure of tolerance yet the goal is acceptance. Yes, tolerance has a short-term goal for any relationship I find myself parachuting into: it is acceptance of the challenge before us. In an interpersonal sense, tolerance sometimes exists as a measurement of our love for others and therefore an invitation to accept the human interpersonal challenges that diachronically confront us. Acceptance of e/o’s humanity can be a steep and life-threatening climb, and the aerial panorama stunningly beautiful or frightfully panic-filled as if becoming face-to-face with our worst fears. Yet, working our way from tolerance to acceptance is to our benefit.

That being true, the goal of acceptance is agreement. Although our IPR agreements may be multifaceted (to the positive or the negative), governed by antecedent variables. IPR agreements work best when they experience compassion. Compassion (available to listen to the other) is a compound term that invites the usar to passion with, suffer with, celebrate with another, but not limited to these. When I agree to accept the practice of compassion it leads me to become other-oriented. Becoming other-oriented enlivens the practice of compassion which then guides me to experience life as if I were the “other.” This other-orientation I experience as incarnation that mutually agrees with empathy (becoming the other.)

The goal of this agreement is mutualism. Mutualism requires something more than compassion. Compassion is largely a listening skill inclusive of validation. Yes, mutualism has its role in listening, yet the goal of mutualism is empathy. Empathy being, becoming the other, not just listening to validate the other. Humans are a narrative specie best served with narrative medicine. Yet, narrative competence is required for empathy to empower this medicine. I can appreciate the way Rita Charon summarized her thoughts:

By equipping ourselves with narrative competence, we are able to use the self as a therapeutic instrument—not only our cognitive grasp of human biology but our imagination, our respect for the courage of others, our awareness of our own frailty, and our willingness to forgive and be forgiven. With our narrative attunement to temporality, we mark the passage of time, providing those who live amid illness [suffering] with the urgency and the patience to claim their numbered days and to see forward and backward toward their meaning, making room within our lives and the lives of our patients for the inevitable mortality that counts us human. With the narrative tools of description and diction and metaphor, we can represent—and therefore recognize and admire—singular individuals in contextualized situations, not as instances of general phenomena but as irreducible and therefore invaluable particulars. Through narrative effort, we achieve first the subject position and then, with . . . [empathy], the intersubjective bond between ourselves and others, thereby inaugurating and framing the therapeutic [a compassionate] relationship.

With narrative emplotment [competence] we attempt—often against all odds—to make causal sense of random events or humbly acknowledge the contingent nature of events that have no cause [or indeed may have one], enabling us both to diagnose disease [dis-ease of suffering] and to tolerate the uncertainty that saturates illness [one’s experience with suffering]. With narrative acts and skills [competence], we recognize and live up to the [our human vocation of] ethical duties incurred by having heard one another out [using compassion] and the indebtedness we sustain by having been heard [validated] by another. Instead of depleting us, this care replenishes us, for our suffering helps our patients [the other] to bear theirs. Its own reward, this care envelops us all with meaning, with grace, with courage, and with joy [yet not limited to these].

Rita Charon expressed, “Telling stories, listening to them, being moved by them to act [ ] are recognized to be at the heart of many of our efforts to find, make, and honor meaning in our lives and the lives of others.” In her summary, Charon has set a credible course that can be clearly navigated by her reader. This course can only be navigated by learning to listen and share with competent compassion, responsive empathy, therefore experiencing a transcendent hope.

Rita Charon, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 236, 441, Kindle.



Dr. Stacy Burdick DMin., BCC, ACPE

Behavioral Health LLC