Every seven years, a crisis blows into my life, launching me into a queasy tailspin. Usually when the storms hit, I fight them, flailing my feet in search of an elusive foothold, until my resistance exhausts me, and I land in my own private wreckage.
I never imagined that my next twister would be a global pandemic. In this case, it’s flung me onto the couch of my studio apartment where, as long as I stay healthy, I face the prospect of not coming within six feet of another human for two to 18 months.
In some ways, I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, thrust into a foreign land and threatened by menacing forces, as I wait helplessly for a “great and powerful” would-be magician to take me, well, out of my home.
Yet, this time I am better prepared, and not just with hand sanitizer and Zoom. After years of emotional cyclones, including the premature death of both my parents from cancer, I know I can turn to storylines to guide me through the darkness.
Storylines may not seem an obvious deus ex machina, but I remember my middle school English teacher drawing a bell curve on the board, explaining that every classic story has a protagonist/hero who is trying to accomplish something, a crisis that gets in the way, and a climax that leads to a resolution revealing a moral.
As a perennial bookworm, I often imagined I was a character in a story. Whenever I had a “why me?” moment, I would ask myself, “How would the heroine (me) respond to these circumstances? What would I root for?” Then, I’d wonder, “What might it be teaching her?”
These questions followed me into adulthood, where I pose them now to myself and the greater consciousness, in my desperate attempts to reframe this journey through the valley of viral despair. What is this asking of us? What outcomes might we root for? What might we learn? How might we grow?
Crisis Is an Opportunity for Growth
After all, every life is an unfolding, potentially redemptive story that is open to interpretation. From the day we’re born, we become the star and spin doctor of our own works in progress, with the power to view our stories as triumphs, tragedies, or something in between.
If we choose to read our lives as personal growth adventures, stories can teach us how to manage our expectations, appreciate our own character development, and more mindfully navigate the chapters in our lives when we feel like we’re flapping in the wind.
Stories teach us that crisis and conflict are not only inevitable, they are an essential part of the narrative. At the outset of every story, the protagonist possesses certain viewpoints and emotional capacities. Inevitably, a crisis arises that pushes the hero to stretch outside his comfort zone. article continues after advertisementhttps://feee75e44849b091f2e7ed6e2f0160fa.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The degree to which the hero embraces and rises to meet this crisis, or tries to avoid it, determines who they become, for better or for worse. Dorothy confronts the Wicked Witch, Luke duels with Darth Vader. Maybe we confront our fear of loneliness and vulnerability, of 24/7 parenting, or a difficult conversation with a partner. In fact, destabilizing forces (a pandemic, for instance) often destroy what is no longer essential (societal busyness), clearing a space for more aliveness, authenticity, and a renewed sense of purpose.
How You View Your Story Matters
Though it’s easy to feel like victims, we are still ever-evolving protagonists of our own dramas with choices to make about how to respond to adversity.
For example, we can read the Wizard of Oz as a victim or self-defeating story or what I call a “soul narrative,” a transcendent lens that frames life as a character development work-out that can stretch and strengthen us into more flexible, open-hearted people.
Consider the following:
Story A: A young Kansas farm girl runs away from home, is swept up by a tornado, commits murder, is almost killed, gets lost, tricked, and makes friends with low self-esteem. She wastes a lot of time because she had the power to get back to Kansas all along. When she finally returns home, her relatives think she’s lying.
Story B: A young Kansas farm girl runs away from home and is swept up by a tornado into a strange land. There, she frees the people from two tyrannical witches. While initially feeling alone and afraid, she joins forces with three new friends. Facing death, deception, and loss, they discover the strength of their own hearts. This empowers the girl to return home, where she wakes surrounded by loved ones who think she was dreaming. But it doesn’t matter because she knows the truth.
What makes these two stories different is not the plotline – each contains the same series of events. It’s that the second story both includes and values Dorothy’s personal growth. By the end, she’s not the same restless farm girl seeking greener pastures; she understands what really matters. Dorothy’s return home is earned only after pain, struggle, and an uncertain future. Sound familiar?article continues after advertisementhttps://feee75e44849b091f2e7ed6e2f0160fa.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
We Need Strong Supporting Characters
Another lesson from stories is that behind every protagonist, supporting characters provide love, support, and encouragement. They are the fairy godmothers and sidekicks who keep the heroine on course and moving forward in a positive direction.
While the crisis in your particular narrative is yours alone to face, we need supporting characters (with cellphones) to help us fight internal and external demons as we fumble our way down the yellow brick road.
It’s a Difficult Chapter, Not the Entire Plotline
Finally, stories teach us that life changes from chapter to chapter. When people become depressed and anxious, they confuse a difficult chapter for the entire plotline. They can’t see the incremental, purposeful lessons at each passage that can help them move their story forward.
Putting mental bookends around a challenging period of time can give us the power to reduce anxiety and foster a positive attitude that enhances our psychic immune system. Even titling the chapter can help us gain insight into the meaning of our story, revealing important morals and themes about our experience. This new awareness can help us reframe inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful time-defined experiences.
Reframing My Story
I reflect on these lessons as I sit cocooned on my couch in pink furry slippers. Rattled by every siren and iPhone news alert, I entertain titles for this unprecedented chapter of my story. On good days, it’s “Becoming a Butterfly,” “Gratitude,” or “Pajama Party for One.” On bad days, it’s “Viral Spiral Vs. Viral Survival,” “Purell Hell,” and my personal favorite, “Worst Writer’s Retreat Ever!”
As a healthy 51-year-old with mild asthma, I’m on the edge of risk. Like everyone, I am anxious about many things—losing loved ones, getting sick, long-term touch starvation, going stir crazy, and the collapse of modern American society as we know it. Minor worries distract me: Should I let the exterminator in? (No!) What’s the best way to decontaminate eight bags of groceries and where will I store them?article continues after advertisementhttps://feee75e44849b091f2e7ed6e2f0160fa.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
And yet, if I frame this uninvited sojourn as a soul narrative, I see the stirrings of metamorphosis. At last, I make time for a daily meditation practice. In the eerie stillness of these Manhattan mornings, I can hear the murmurs of my heart, as it aches and breaks with fellow couch-sitters around the world and prays for the brave essential workers risking their lives to make ours safer.
It tells me I’m blessed with a bounty of “supporting characters” with whom I ride the swirling gusts of fear and uncertainty with video chats and silly memes. It shows me small victories like keeping my apartment clean. It reveals the defining moments when my experience as a seasoned twister rider helps me gently guide my psychotherapy clients (and fellow passengers) through the turbulence.
As I approach a long-sought intimacy with my ever-expanding heart, I embrace both its light and its shadows that sparkle like rubies. I am alone, but I don’t feel alone. This realization washes over me like a gentle breeze as I whisper to whoever is listening, “Yes, Dorothy, there’s no place like home.”