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Counselling, Curiosity, and Stories

Dr. Rod WilsonBlog, Church, Wellbeing

Curiosity without Story

I once attended a conference on the role of personality in the workplace. We were handed a blank name tag and a felt pen at the registration table. It wasn’t our name that was to appear on the sticker but our Myers-Briggs designation.

Based on four dichotomies of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Introversion or Extraversion, Sensing or Intuition, Thinking or Feeling, Judging or Perceiving), we were to identify our four-letter indicator (like ESTJ or INTP) and stick it on our shirt.

Recently, the Enneagram, a similar but different device, has become popular. With the Enneagram, a number replaces four letters. Each number between one and nine is assigned a different personality type.

There’s debate about whether such devices are grounded in sound science and a concern that they create a false sense of self and others. But cocktail parties often come to life when personality types are discussed. We are all curious about who we are.

The risk is that devices of this nature can minimize what it means to be human and lessen stories’ centrality in our unique experiences of life. “I had to leave the job—I’m an Introvert, and it was a people place.” “My marriage is exasperating me—he’s a Thinker, and I’m a Feeler.” “Obviously, I have trouble fitting in—I’m a Four.” “You shouldn’t be surprised that I’m angry all the time—I’m a One.”

What are the stories behind being an introvert, having marital tension, not fitting in, or experiencing perpetual anger? We often lack the time and interest to provide space for others to share their stories, so it’s easy to stick with the letter, the single word, or the number. We assume we know everything there is to know.

Maybe someone has experienced immense fear and shame, and the apparent introversion is a way to cope. Marriage is a strange and complicated relationship with many dynamics that can’t be fully captured in words like thinking or feeling. Not fitting in may be traced to many factors, including inappropriate ways of relating or unwelcoming communities. Anger may relate to historical pain or abandonment or might be an appropriate response to a traumatic event.

While personality tests may stimulate our curiosity, they tend to negate story. Even diagnoses, appropriate as they are for some purposes, can reduce the human experience to labels. In the process of diagnosing, we may not expend the time and energy to listen to people’s stories.

Curiosity with Story

Stories help us maintain and organize our reality, and when we talk about them, they give us a sense of who we are. If we want to get to the core of anything, we need to know the story behind it. If we are going to change reality, we need to reconsider and reauthor the story.

It is for this reason that the biblical canon is so essential.

The sixty-six books we call the Holy Scriptures are not a list of disembodied propositions and esoteric concepts. They are not the B-I-B-L-E (basic instructions before leaving Earth), offering us a how-to manual for the complexities of life.

Pure and simple, they compose a story. It is a story that presents reality in that it does not sugar-coat life like a romantic movie. As the story unfolds, we see strength and struggle, grit, and grime. Real people lead messy lives in biblical stories, but they also demonstrate courage and vigor. Some of the stories unpack the lives of corrupt and power-hungry leaders, while others portray leaders with integrity and holiness.

As we read through these stories, we understand the cosmic reality of who we are. Fallen image bearers, theologians call us—people who were created in the image of a good God; people who found it easy to pursue independence and autonomy from the One who made us. Fallen is an apt word.

The story makes us particularly curious when that good God does not allow the fragmentation between being fallen and being an image bearer to remain as a permanent state. Grace and mercy pour out of the one God all over our story. It becomes a reconsidered and reauthored story as we live into forgiveness and redemption, reconciliation and adoption.

Why does the biblical story stimulate our curiosity? It allows us to grapple with the various facets of who we are under the providence of the triune God. As our personal story is examined through the mirror of Scripture, we get glimpses into how our story might be reconsidered and reauthored. Through the continual reading of biblical stories, our memory is jogged and our identity is strengthened as we limp along, seeking to understand who we are and who God is.

Counselling, Curiosity, and Story

I have been to seven different counsellors in my life. On two occasions, it related to family-of-origin issues; two concentrated on parenting and marriage dynamics; two focused on my journey with depression; and one helped with a vocational transition.

Although the stigma surrounding mental health and counselling has lessened, unhelpful stereotypes still abound. For some people, going to seven counsellors indicates that I have trouble functioning. Those who view life through the grid of control and competence wonder why anyone would need that many helpers. Solver-fixer types interpret having seven counsellors as a reflection of the fact that I am not being given the right advice. People who struggle with vulnerability can’t fathom journeying to that many counselling offices.

Even though the counsellors came from different perspectives and the problems I presented were diverse, one thing brought it all together: They all wanted to hear my story.

It isn’t enough to say there are issues in my family of origin, struggles in my marriage and parenting, angst in my journey of living with depression, or confusion in my vocational direction. Each of these categories is a window into the story of my life. They aren’t merely questions that require an answer, problems that require a solution, or experiences that need a fix. Together, they make up who I am.

With wisdom and empathy, all my counsellors have helped me to open up. When I wanted to tell my story briefly, even superficially, I was invited into a space where welcome and hospitality produced more detail. My sense of aloneness in pain led to an encounter of co-pilgrimage, where someone was walking with me. As my openness increased, the counsellors engaged with encouragement, information, skill development, guidance, and perspective. They became crucial in the re-creation of my story and helped me to discover where it fit into God’s bigger story.

In an environment of this nature, my story was being told and heard by the counsellor, myself, and God. This mystical link of curiosity, counselling, and story provided a context for healing. For this reason, I find it easy to encourage all those who have similar experiences to pursue the sacred space of counselling.

And for those of us walking alongside people with mental health challenges, let’s remind ourselves that we need to reside in their story. Rather than feeling the need to evaluate and diagnose, we can pursue empathetic curiosity and express attentive care.

A portion of this article content has been adapted from Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More.: How to Change the World with 3 Sacred Sayings by Rod Wilson. Copyright ©2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

Dr. Rod Wilson

Dr. Rod Wilson has worked as a psychologist, served as a pastor in three churches, and held multiple roles in theological education, including president of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, from 2000–2015. Rod currently works with Lumara Grief and Bereavement Care Society, A Rocha, the Society of Christian Schools in BC, and In Trust Center for Theological Schools, and maintains an international teaching and mentoring ministry. His upcoming book, Thank You. I’m Sorry. Tell Me More., releases from NavPress in January 2022.

You can purchase the book directly from the publisher, or here in Canada, and here in the US.

Cover Photo by Hatice Yardim on Unsplash