Beginning. Middle. End.

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Are there parts of yourself that the world never sees? Photo via Luz Adriana Villa on Flickr (creative commons)

Beginning. Middle. End. It’s such a simple idea, yet I’m always surprised how we find ways to avoid its inevitable progression. Can anything escape this fundamental narrative structure?

I’ve had an ending quite recently – my last job – and with that comes a beginning that I’m living currently. The process of starting anew is familiar to most – we know to expect any combination of excitement, fear, reluctance, and eagerness. I don’t recall having experienced sadness or anger because of a beginning, though that might just be me. Sure, I’ve been sad and angry during times of transition, but those negative emotions are attributable to the preceding endings rather than the beginnings themselves.

I recently attended a presentation on grief and loss in one of the school districts that I work with in my new position as a suicide prevention therapist. The speaker – a youth worker at a local hospice society – discussed the concept of beginnings, middles, and ends as a way to help youth understand death and allow them to grieve healthily. I know it sounds like common sense, but the idea appealed to me in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Kids understand what a story is from an incredibly young age, and stories by their very nature have a “defined” beginning, middle, and end. When it comes to grief, or any other kind of loss, problems often arise when that natural progression is truncated. In other words, if we don’t allow ourselves to experience a defined “end,” we’re going to have some unresolved issues down the road. In the grief process, “end” usually means suffering (though not necessarily despair), so the avoidance impulse is understandable, though maladaptive.

The pain accompanying loss is a signal communicating the presence of a wound – often severe. It seems illogical to state that many people live their lives ignoring these wounds, but that’s exactly what happens. If I were to sustain a physical injury – say a deep cut – I would be best served in both the short- and long-term by getting some first aid. If I don’t clean the wound, it may become infected, leading to much more serious complications like amputation or even death. If I don’t get stitches, the scar tissue won’t heal properly, leaving behind not only an ugly visual marker of the injury, but an increased likelihood it could be reopened in the future. The same applies psychologically. Without proper “emotional first aid,” the invisible wounds associated with loss will fester, not simply go away.

Only with endings are new beginnings – healthy and adaptive emotional experiences – allowed.

The solution can be as simple as allowing expression of painful emotions. Emotions that are uncomfortable. Emotions that don’t comply with social norms. However, it’s worth noting that expression doesn’t necessarily imply an outward or verbal action. If like me you grew up in a relatively emotion-free household, you probably learned to deal with painful emotions either internally or symbolically (music and writing are two good examples of this). Keep in mind that such expression can take many different forms – what’s important is that the emotion is acknowledged, labeled, and allowed to run its course. Once that happens, the need associated with an emotional experience can be addressed.

It sounds so simple, but as with most things worth doing, it’s easier said than done. You may start by asking yourself: what side of myself do I keep the world from seeing? Who ultimately benefits from doing so? Who suffers as a result?

3 thoughts on “Beginning. Middle. End.

  1. Hey, really good thoughts. I liked the ideas around creating closure to move on, ending in order to create a new beginning. In my field of careers work (remember that? 🙂 ) I find we often look at the problem of transition more than the problem of closure.

    Your question about if we can have stories without a beginning, middle and end is really interesting (ties in with Aristotle and Ricoeur’s philosophy). I think on one one level the structure follows the cause-effect way of thinking that all stories have. The questions, I feel, are can you expand on these points to create more detail? And what alternative ways do you see people in? Maybe more in terms of their characteristics, identities, truths and communities. But I feel because of the nature of existence being bounded by time you can’t really get away from stories, that’s why we can’t help but tell them!

    I’d really recommend “The Storytelling Animal” by Gottschall and “Seven Basic Plots” by Booker, I love both books!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tom! Yes, of course I remember careers work – and fondly!

      As for the point about beginnings, middles, and ends… it does beg a more fundamental question as to the pervasiveness of the linear narrative as a means of storytelling in human culture.

      I feel like as though some postmodern narrative structures tend to dance around the beginning, middle, end sequence a bit, but can they escape it altogether? I’m not sure. Perhaps once I get to those books (thanks for the recommendations!) I’ll revisit the issue with a deeper perspective.

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