Life is a tapestry made of the threads of many experiences

Some years ago, I attended a day-long retreat where the facilitator used the image of a tapestry as our focus. Simply put, she held up before us a beautiful design with impeccable detail. Then she flipped the tapestry over to reveal what looked like a chaotic tangling of different colored threads not looking like any sort of pattern at all.

That was her point.

She then handed out pencils and paper and had us begin to write. We drew lines from top to bottom on our pages and created columns with titles on the pages, defining each “turning point” in our lives — something that set us in a new direction, such as “parents divorced” or “graduated from high school” or “enlisted in the Army.” We then were asked to record the approximate years of each section from turning point to turning point, such as 1980-1985. Finally, she had us fill those columns with answers to the following prompts: “During this time period, who do you remember as significant people in your life, what books did you read, what music did you listen to, what movies had an impact on you, what news events do you remember?” and so on.

After filling our columns with data, we began to consider the many “intersections” of events that shaped us. We could see how each of these influences helped form our attitudes, develop our beliefs, lead us to our next steps — even determine our definitions of ourselves. We began to see a tapestry — a detailed image — of who we were becoming.

Looking back, I have to admit that I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have stumbled into several “intersections” where some amazing people came into my life for a particular time and then went away. I will never forget four graduate-school professors making life-changing impressions on me and many of my fellow students.

Children who have experienced trauma, benefit most when professionals work together to consider all facets of the child — physiological, emotional, cognitive, and psychological. Doctors emphasize that as newborns we are no longer just considered blank slates to be written upon. Rather, the imagery has been shifted to “data ready” — that as newborns we have “all the software” we need to start “taking in the data” and adapt to our environment. We are made “ready to weave.”

I love the implications of this perspective — our lives as a tapestry. The first is: rather than the shifting events and people in our lives being considered of little or no meaningful significance, it shifts to the flip side — the events and the people in our lives today are of meaningful significance and play their part in the formation of who we are and how we see life. The second is even better: rather than looking at our past and ourselves as a tangled mess of random events and relationships, we see perhaps for the first time that we are a work of art, in progress, of impeccable detail.

Not a bad way to see it, I would say.

Steve Pults, LMHC, is an individual, couple and family therapist at Mercer Island Youth & Family Services.

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