The Soul Work of Sorting a Birth Story

by Pam England

One of the most beloved myths in Greek antiquity is the story of Psyche and Eros; it is a love story and a woman’s heroic-initiatory journey during which Psyche must complete four tasks or trials. Her first task is Sorting: by nightfall, she must separate and sort a huge pile of tiny seeds: barley, peas, lentils, poppies, wheat, and beans. Unfortunately, Psyche has yet to develop patience, focus, and discernment (the skills required for this task), so it is too hard, too much; she doesn’t know how to do it. As a result, she is quickly overwhelmed and discouraged and falls into despair.

Psyche’s task of sorting reminds me of the soul task of Sorting in birth story work. Immediately after laboring and giving birth, memories of what happened are often fuzzy, blurred, splintered, vivid, and scattered. In the first weeks, our instinct is to gather all the bits and pieces into a heap (often asking witnesses to recall and fill in misplaced bits about what happened, who was there, what was said, and so on). Little insight or meaning can be drawn from such a mound and muddle of memories. The next effort to create order may be to organize the events into a chronological sequence, sorting out what happened and when. Finally, the storyteller begins to wonder: Why? Why me? What is the purpose of meaning in what happened?

In due time comes the Call to sort it out. Before putting the story together in a meaningful way, we must take it apart to see what is there; the meaning lies beneath the surface. To rush the change work before the sorting has been done may compound the storyteller’s confusion and overwhelm; and there is a risk that any new solution or meaning will be superficial and fleeting.

Continuing our metaphor, the storyteller must begin the tedious task of separating “story seeds” which represent her physical and medical experience from the seeds of an inner quest, i.e., her cultural story as an obstetric patient from her inner-gestation and birth as a mother. It is tedious work to separate Seeds of beliefs, assumptions, agreements, and judgments because the Seeds are tiny and hard to grasp. And then the round seeds of expectations must be separated from the ovoid shaped seeds of what happened that was unexpected. Sorting takes patience and time (weeks, months, even years).

Some storytellers come to their first session having already sorted through part of their experience before stumbling over something they can’t quite see; they come seeking another pair of eyes to help them discover what’s unknown to them. Other storytellers’, so overwhelmed by their experiences in labor, don’t know where or how to begin sorting it out. Here’s where a trained story-listener with a developed skill of selectivity, e.g., knowing what to look for and what to ignore, can help the storyteller begin sorting the seeds of meaning and possibilities into one pile and those that won’t feed her transformation work into another. In this way, Birth Story Medicine may show a novice how to sort meaning from the misery of life’s transitions; once internalized, patience and discernment will serve them throughout their life.

All rights reserved. Copyright Pam England/Birth Story Medicine Aug 2022. No reproduction without written permission.

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