Several years ago, I wrote a post (still by far the most popular on this site) about a scene from Pan’s Labyrinth in which the young heroine draws a door on the wall using chalk when she’s being pursued by a monster and needs to escape. This remains one of my favorite images, and one that guides my practice as a psychotherapist.
In Narrative Therapy, when we hit upon a particularly useful idea and want to expand in time, a few questions are helpful: What were the seeds of the experience? What did you have to know in order to be successful? How did you decide on that particular response to the problem? In the case of the film, the heroine had received a visit from a strange mythological figure who told her of the existence of another realm and how to enter it. So, in order to hit on this particular ingenious way of saving her own life, she had to have a relationship with the mythological realm, she had to know this other world existed, and she had to know how to move between worlds. She had done so by drawing a chalk door once before already. At another point in the film, this skill again saves her.
Once, in a training class, a very experienced therapist told me that there are often points when listening to clients’ stories about their problems when she finds herself feeling as hopeless as the client does about the situation. When I get that feeling, she said, I know that I’m as stuck in the dominant story as the client is. To feel stuck is to forget that there are other realms, and one of my primary jobs as a therapist is to hold that awareness of another reality in the times when the client loses the connection to it.
That practice changes my own approach to life as well. We all get stuck in these dominant stories. We use them to organize our lives. This is not a bad thing; it’s a human thing. Years ago, I participated in a workshop with an art therapist who guided us through a series of art projects in her wonderful studio space. On the last evening, I was taking my projects home. I stood there holding several of them in my hands while I told her how much I appreciated the workshop. She said, “I really like your art.” I said, “Oh, I don’t really do art.” There were several bona fide artists and art therapists in this class, and I thought she must be mistaking me for one of them. She looked at me oddly, and I realized how strange this was. Here I was holding several art projects in my hands and denying that I actually “did art” because it wasn’t part of my usual story about myself.
I may choose to live in one story most of the time, but that doesn’t make it the only one available. Perhaps if we make a practice of drawing doors and moving between realms, we’ll be amazed at the problems that can be solved, the art that can be created, the narrow escapes that can be made.