Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How We Remember: Narrative Gifts

Geoff Spencer 9.11.11

September 14, 2011

After a media fast for 7 days – no TV, no newspaper, no online news blasts - we are still beating the positive drum of inspiration, optimism, and goodwill toward men (and women). When we look for the good, we find goodness. My husband, Geoff, lost his brother and only sibling in the 2nd World Trade Center tower 10 years ago. Since then, he has been telling this narrative: “This was not how the story of my brother’s life would end. I made it my mission to make sure that his legacy was one of love, not tragedy and hate.”

Ten years later, the story keeps on keeping on. In five days last week, I witnessed a powerful phenomenon. Geoff spoke in three different cities: two different college classrooms, two different local high school classrooms, a Cleveland high school auditorium, and three different worship services. Over two thousand ears heard the story of how George “Twig” Spencer III was a man who had a passion for life - a joie de vivre, a love for sailing. Geoff’s story highlights the life lived, not the loss, the shared memories, and a faith that he carries with him each day.

I noticed the shift in the energy of the room. While some listeners were 8 to 10 years old when the World Trade Centers came down, it didn’t matter the age. The amazing beauty of stories is that they are both ageless and timeless.

The story is rife with empowerment and good feeling. While counterintuitive to what one might expect - and be expected - to respond, the feel-good focus gives us pause. Many people wonder: “Why is he making us feel OK? How can he have such a positive perspective on this? Shouldn’t I be somber and subdued and hold onto a respectful amount of mourning, sadness, and grief?” Perhaps. Yet, Geoff would be the first to tell you that neither he nor his brother would want that.

Instead, he suggests we embrace a life lived, and pull up the memories and images of a sailing adventure on the lifelong family sailboat, Misty. He would ask that we imagine a mile-long port tack sail three days ago (an annual “Twig honoring” ritual to sail on 9/11), where we eagerly put our faces to the wind to receive a refreshing spray of Gulf of Mexico water to honor the many times Twig did just that.

He would ask that we envision a 53-year-old Misty abandoned, seemingly beyond repair, in 2002 in the backyard of a Connecticut home, where she was painstakingly restored to her old self by Twig’s brother; to be unthinkably sailed again to win regattas and be a symbolic beacon of eternal triumph.

Geoff would ask that we mindfully close our eyes and picture what it was like when he put in the last screw on the newly refinished rotted floorboard, and realize: “Oh my gosh; I did it!” And he would ask that we imagine his hand on the tiller as he first set sail onMisty and looked up to the heavens with a wet tear-streaked face and said: “We did it, Twig; Misty is sailing again.”

A Northwestern University Psychology Professor and Researcher, Dr. Dan McAdams and Dr. John Holmes, a Waterloo Psychology professor, have spent a decade researching how the sharing of stories and narratives after a terrible event are what McAdams called: “redemption sequences," those stories that take a tragic event and have a positive outcome. “Regardless of the story’s overall tone, participants who told redemption sequences also tended to be happier, the researchers found.”

"Stories shape memory so dramatically," says Holmes. "Once you tell a story, it’s hard to get out of that story’s framework, and they tend to get more dramatic over time." This is how we choose to remember.

In her recent research on how people reframe their stories after a tragic event, Dr. Laura King, a Psychology professor at the University of Missouri offers us this: "It shows this amazing capacity people have to create meaning out of these events."

“Taken together, psychologists’ narrative research makes one resounding point: We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us. They shape our thoughts and memories, and even change how we live our lives. Storytelling isn’t just how we construct our identities, stories are our identities," Holmes says.

"Every story is a gift, a little part of yourself that you share with the audience," King says. "Who doesn’t like gifts?"

How might you choose to remember, reframe, and recreate a happy ending for thousands of ears?

Mindfully Yours,


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