“Throw away all thoughts of imaginary things – and stand firm in that which you are.” – Kabir
We’ve spent a LOT of time exploring the world of narrative and interpretation so far – albeit with all sorts of inescapable linkages to the world of action. Laying aside all the other many varied practical choices facing individuals and families, there are a set of choices preceding everything else: which narrative do I embrace as true?
The power of narratives to shape (all) our lives. I (Jacob) first clued into the practical power of personal narratives several years ago during research exploring conflicting narratives of depression treatment – with particular attention to: (1) how various narratives were adopted over time and (2) how those distinct stories played out practically in shaping diverging trajectories of depression treatment.
Most intriguing to me were moments in which a new narrative of depression appeared to be “galvanized” or cemented in place for any given individual. Against the backdrop of urgent emotional pain, most often this moment revolved around a friend or family member urging someone to “get help” – then prompting a transformative meeting with a physician. In that meeting, a new narrative of emotional pain was often received alongside a prescription itself. That moment is often recounted as a turning point – what another research team called the “profoundly influential occasion of individuals first hearing” that their brain was fundamentally deficient. This same research team goes on to describe how this encounter leads participants to question previous knowledge, and engage in an “ongoing process of revision to accommodate new information,” ultimately “reformulating a new explanatory model,” which, at times “completely substitutes” for their previous understanding. All subsequent experience comes to be interpreted out of this depression narrative.
The resulting consequences could not be more dramatic. In addition to shaping whatever treatment pathways are pursued (or not), multiple accounts confirmed uniquely poignant implications for how people see their own selfhood. After receiving a particular diagnosis, one woman remarked: “You feel like you lose yourself, almost. Like a part of you dies when you’re diagnosed….like a grieving period realizing that the person that was faking it for so long – she wasn’t real.” She continued, “and she kind of did die and that we had to reinvent and restructure this new being, almost…Giving her the tools and the revenues, making sure she had insurance all the time…it‘s hard…[You] do feel a detachment from everything you thought you were when this becomes where you’re at” (see a more detailed summary of this narrative adoption process here).
I came away from this research deeply persuaded that narratives shape our lives in virtually every imaginable way – both subtly and powerfully – and in ways we are hardly aware. If this is true of health narratives, I wondered, could it apply to sexuality narratives as well?
No narrative here. Just as in health narratives, some would quickly object to the idea that there is a relevant narrative at all. At least initially, talk of ‘narrative’ can feel de-legitimizing – as if we were simply claiming your experience with health or sexuality is ‘just subjective.’
This couldn’t be further from the truth. All narratives, from this perspective, are in constant, inescapable interaction with the context of body and place. Rather than some overlay on top of “reality,” this interplay is intense and unavoidable.
Indeed, rather than something some people do, making sense of the world via narrative is here proposed as something that all human beings engage in – simply, by virtue of being a human being. Thus whether religious or non-religious, liberal or conservative, LGBT-identifying or SSA-identifying…we share one thing in common: we’re narrative creatures!
Among all the other things we tell Stories about, we definitely narrative the “Self.”
Adopting an identity story. As detailed earlier, the decision about who we are – and what is most important (or essential or fundamental) about us is a question we all face.
More than simply a cognitive or intellectual decision, these questions revolve around different desires or priorities. Alongside the rational reflection that is also obviously involved, one philosopher, Joshue Knobe writes, “People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.” What do we most care about, value and want? Who or what do we most love?
Knobe goes on to share his own experimental evidence – consistent with Jonathan Haidt’s own research – in confirming this insight: “Our stories of who we are (all of us) appear to arise more from what we want, care about and value, instead of simply what we ‘see’ or reason. If it’s true that we don’t discover our identity by pure awareness alone, it seems we human beings are compelled (at least in part) to a journey of exploring our identity through the prism of what we each want and most deeply value. As the philosopher Charles Taylor once said, ‘My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand’” (Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity).
Like other areas of life, then, how exactly we interpret, relate to or narrate sexual aspects of life is a choice we come to uniquely – and connected to other issues. Indeed, whether or not someone identifies (or not) with a particular sexual desire – is tied to many of the other questions explored in previous chapters: Who am I? How changeable is my body? What is God’s perspective on sexuality? Where is my fullest happiness to be found?
Influences on narrative adoption. Selecting one’s narrative, of course, does not happen in a vacuum; none of us create our personal narratives “whole cloth” – but instead, pattern them out of cloth received from a collective.
Very different influences are apparent. Thus people often speak of various turning points in their journeys where this or that explanations or narratives were galvanized. For instance, one person related, “when I went to see the counselor, I told her about my homosexual feelings and she said there’s nothing wrong with that and she said you can still be a member of the Church and find a lifetime partner. You just won’t be able to go to the temple and hearing something like that from a BYU employee, a counselor, just blew my mind. At the time I wasn’t ready for that. It kinda really scared me. I didn’t know what think about what she was saying to me but that experience really helped me to progress and to move on” (FB-CH)
Another person spoke of certain “youtube videos” as having helped him “come out back in the day.”
These various moments lead individuals in different directions. What they have in common is sparking the galvanizing and downloading of a particular narrative.
Some, of course, perhaps most would simply call this a discovery process. Here, we’re suggesting that like other turning point moments, these moments reflect a narrative being downloaded and adopted.
There are many examples of people beginning to adopt a new narrative about themselves and ultimately starting to see all other experiences out of that same lens. Just as with health narratives, the implications of a new sexuality narrative can be profound.
Living out the different stories. As evident in many accounts, depending on the narrative adopted, it can become all-encompassing – and push out previous understandings. Those who are converted to a religious faith experience that. Similarly, those who adopt a civil rights narrative of gay rights, all else can become subsumed in it. In what follows, we review some of the potential implications of adopting one story or another in relation to same-sex attraction.
1. A whole new world (or old dreams to pursue)? At some point, individuals often announce to family members their new understanding of their sexuality. This moment is often transformative for people involved, and one in which an entirely new narrative can be galvanized throughout the family. The impact can be profound. Describing her son’s “coming out,” one mother writes, “I had to re-examine everything I had previously thought and at times thought I knew with certainty to be true. It upended my notions of truth, happiness, obedience, loyalty, and in fact all that I held dear, including my perception of the character of God. And I, for a long moment, wondered if I would be able to stay [in my faith]…All of my beliefs have been upended and rearranged.”
One teen describes his experience in what he experienced as a moment of discovery: “I knew then. There is an indescribable feeling when you grow up expecting your life to follow a very defined path, and everyone around you follows the same formula for a happy life, but one day you wake up and realize you don’t fit into the plan. And everything you know falls apart.”
For both individuals and families, the entire landscape in life can shift. As one person put it: “All [previous] teaching about my identity…was WRONG! I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was” (FB-KA)
Accompanying this new narrative is a whole new world of language and terms – “homophobia,” “heterosexism” and “ally,” for instance. Most often, these are adopted as part of one’s new reality, as a participant in a new-found “civil rights movement.”
For others who resist this same narrative of sexuality or coming out, they do not adopt or download these same understandings about the world. Neither do they feel as acutely a need to pursue different dreams – or abandon old ones.
2. Dramatic shifts (or not)? As part of this transition, one person described being at a crossroads, “do I need to walk away from my wife and kids?” A mother similarly recountedwhat she experienced as a challenging dilemma between loyalties to her son and her faith: “When my son came out to our family as gay eight years ago, my hurdle towards a major crisis of faith began…There is nothing like seeing a precious child in despair over the knowledge that the plan of happiness he had been taught to strive for, which included the opportunity for temple marriage and parenthood, the plan that is the bedrock of our theology, would be impossible for him to attain as his authentic self.”
While conflict may have existed for decades, one’s lived experience may come to feel even more impossible at this point. As reflected in comments above, wrenching shifts can come to feel almost inevitable – including for family members. Referring to his religious conservative family, one LGBT-identifying man said, “I don’t think it’s been easy for them. I think that they’ve had a dream for me ever since before I was born of things I would have. And they’ve had, you know, a short time to reconsider and change their dreams for me and that’s obviously hard for any parent. And I’ve had a lot longer to deal with it than they have” (FB-RU).
Another man described telling his family about now identifying as gay. Although he experienced this as just “new honesty about his true identity,” for his family, it represented walking away everything he had been taught to value – a mission, marriage, the Church itself: “When that happened, the whole world sort of came crashing down, not only for me but for them, and I didn’t realize until a couple years ago that they didn’t know how it to deal with what I was going through any better than I did at the time” (FB-BE)
3. The extent of future dilemmas? Ultimately, these conflicts can be experienced as paradoxical and impossible to reconcile – as one described it, “a sharp, painful dilemma with the contrast in teaching about the church” (FB-CH). After coming to identify as gay, one man spoke of the challenge of having “two conflicting identities.” He continued, “Because of the irreconcilability I spent a lot of my life before coming out especially in a depressed state kind of like trying to achieve an unobtainable task. I realized why people get depressed and suicidal because you’re constantly trying to resolve something that’s irresolvable. It’s frustrating to always have to defend kind of my existence, or my being” (FB-TI).
For some, this seeming impossible and inescapable dilemma leads to strong consideration of suicide. Referring to his hopes of a conventional marriage, one man reflected, “There was this wonderful thing God was offering me, and I didn’t understand why He was offering it to me if it was so obviously unobtainable. I really started thinking about suicide, and I started thinking about it a lot” (VH-JO). Another added, “It’s hard to even go day by day. Not knowing how you’re going to reconcile this about yourself, how you going to create a life that is happy in any way” (FB-H).
Whereas this kind of confusion and despair is typically taken to be evidence of the harm ensuing from religious conservative teaching, it’s also reasonable to look at the conflict between religious conservative and LGBT progressive views of sexuality as driving many of the difficulties.
Illustrating this possibility, a third individual commented that unfortunately all these messages he had been getting that “this is just who you are and you just need to be yourself and be gay” highlighted as contributing to his desire to kill himself – specifically “not knowing that there were other options.” This led him to excruciating (and seemingly unresolvable pain): “I figured if I couldn’t have the life I wanted, and the life I could have from what I read wasn’t conducive to the gospel and the things that were important then my only option was to kill myself” (VH-DEC).
By contrast, to the dilemmas, others speaking of finding more resolution over time – and not necessarily having to grapple with constant dilemmas in their life.
4. Which separation to pursue?While suicidal thoughts are the most desperate and troubling experience associated with these changing/clashing narratives, others are more subtle. For instance, this clash in narratives may also create a feeling of being out-of-place in one’s religious community:
Naturally, then, it’s only sensible to consider walking away from this all. As one man summarized: “It was a really difficult time for me because with that coming out I felt like…I had to leave behind a church that was important to me and had really been a grounding force in my life. Also, I figured there were friends I would have to leave behind because there is no way they could ever accept this in me. There were hopes and dreams I had of having a family and having a wife that I was going to have to leave behind It was a very scary thing… feeling like my life was about to change and that I would have to leave my life behind and start a whole new life” (VH-DEC)
Another man hinted at the impact on family relationships as he more fully adopted this new self-narrative: “I fully started using the word gay. And I talked to [my wife] and told her that I was unhappy and things weren’t going great that I really needed to kind of figure this side of myself out or that I was just going to live an unhappy life and be depressed. I was going to be a terrible father and a terrible husband, etc.” (FB-CH).
By contrast, others speak of staying in relationship – both to their faith community and their previous family relationships.
As reflected here, depending on the narrative of sexuality adopted, profound implications can follow: what relationships do we enter (or end), what dreams to pursue (or not), which communities to embrace (or avoid).
Maintaining stories. Depending on the community we embrace and enter, it will further reinforce our chosen narrative. When we think of communities (online or in person), we typically think their main focus is exchange of friendship, support and love. But that’s not all we exchange in “community” – a root word that implies a “sharing of gifts.” Within community, we also share a Story – a Narrative that is important or valued to its members. In addition to introducing a particular Story to others, that sharing functions to help maintain, preserve and protect a particular Story.
The Buddhist solution to the story wars. As evident in the surrounding conversation, very quickly this can become a battle between two stories about sexuality, identity and God: “This is who you are….no THIS is who you are!!!”
When challenged, of course, any one of us will insist on our narrative even more strongly. As one individual said when challenged, “I am for sure a homosexual in the church” and a mother, “This is my son. He is gay. He is Mormon.”
Is there a way to avoid the back-and-forth that only galvanizes our certainty and anger?
From a mindfulness, contemplative perspective, we can begin to watch thoughts, interpretations and narratives….as just that: thoughts and narratives.
Rather than adopting it as unquestioned and automatic ‘reality,’ we can get curious about what goes on our heads – even infusing that with a bit of uncertainty and curiosity.
As the space between us becomes infused with the same qualities, the animosity can fade away and be replaced with a shared affection as we pursue this fascinating exploration together.
Which story is yours? From this perspective, the question shifts from a forced choice: “will you be who you are or not” – to “which story will you adopt.” We would argue that everyone faces this question, not simply one community or another.
More than simply embracing a narrative of faith or God or sexuality, there are many aspects to the journey. In his Circles of Empathy practice, for instance, Kendall Wilcox proposes the following series of questions to explore (with slight elaborations on our part):
Question #1: What is your story?
Question #2: What is your primary role in life?
Question #3: What is your value system?
Question #4: How do you make decisions on moral questions?
Question #5: What is your [narrative of] spiritual orientation?
Question #6: What are your [narrative of] gender identity and sexual orientation?
Question #7: Does your [narrative] sexual orientation align with your sexual behavior and intimate relationships? Why? Does your [narrative of] gender identity align with your gender expression? Why?
Question #8: Based on your responses to the previous seven questions, what do you feel is the healthiest and most sustainable way to live your life?
So how can any one of us proceed in such a profound exploration?
Here again, the advice from the east is profound. Gautama Buddha once taught, simply “Follow the Peace.”
As people seek to do this, perhaps we can also allow them greater to space to explore different narratives and come to the conclusions that feel right to them.
One person can conclude, “I am gay” and another “I am experiencing same-sex attraction” – and we can hear both out.
One person can conclude, “my real happiness relies on finding a same-sex partner,” and another with the same level of same-sex attraction may conclude their happiness will be found in pursuing an opposite sex partner. Rather than pressuring either, both journeys can be given space – hearing out the different experiences as part of our own ongoing journey.
 Central to our argument is the inseparability of these worlds, of course, with interpretation inevitably leading to action, and each action possessing an accompanying story and interpretation, whether or not we’re aware of it!
 Of course, every community promotes its particular narrative because they believe it is the best path for its members – with no need for them to consider another! There is no conscious motivation to restrict or hurt people – quite the contrary!
 The power of this declaration is no surprise to those in the gay community. A simple declaration of the “truth about oneself” presented as having the power to influence the world around: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”