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The last few minutes of the Super Bowl were astounding. Astounding that the Seahawks were marching toward inexorable victory and then bungled it in the last few seconds with a call no one has been able to explain. Astounding that the Patriots were winding down toward inexorable defeat, with a most unlikely catch by the opposing team, and then won on an unlikely interception by a rookie. What made this series of events more astounding was the eerie similarity between the last minute bobble catch by the Seahawks and the last minute “helmet catch” by the Giants in a previous Super Bowl match-up. A match-up the Patriots lost. Yet this time they won. As the immediate excitement of the game wanes, what can we learn from this series of events?

Reflecting upon the events of Super Bowl XLIX, and the potential meanings it carries (a meaningful way to cope with a traffic jam on the Jackie Robinson), I thought about the importance of narratives and the role they plan in our lives. As much as narratives can be constructive and therapeutic, they can also be self-defeating.   Narratives can perpetuate the patterns we are trying to overcome—self-fulfilling prophecies. Narratives shape our interpretations of events and assumptions of events to come.   When we get too locked into a narrative, it becomes like miles of railroad tracks already laid down in a pre-determined direction. We respond to situations based upon our expectations and assumptions rather than allowing a fresh, spontaneous moment to happen, for new tracks to be laid down or a “switch” to be activated. The process of changing these assumptions and expectations is called cognitive restructuring. This involves actively changing the narrative of our lives and the way we define ourselves. This is one way to adjust a narrative. While sitting down, and reflecting, through thought and conscious effort.   Another way to redefine our narrative is through action. To do something important in a key moment. Something different. And then that feeds back into and changes our self-definition. Both are powerful modes of transformation.


It has been pointed out by many that the Patriots demonstrated a mental toughness this year that is to be respected. This toughness kept them in the season, catapulted them to the Super Bowl, and kept them in the final game until the very end. Clearly if they had given up, or given in to the narrative that they have a Super Bowl “curse,” that they are destined to have victory slip through their fingers in the last seconds through some fluke, there would have been no room for the magic to happen. It’s the kind of toughness that is portrayed in books and movies, the kind that inspires us and makes history. This made me think about the toughness I see every day working with my clients who are downtrodden by the misfortunes that life has thrown their way or buffeted by symptoms that are at times overwhelming and disabling. Yet they survive and they continue to struggle to prevail. Their struggles are rarely told and do not have a halftime performance, cheerleaders or million dollar sponsors. It is too bad, really. But there seemed to be something in the lesson of Super Bowl XLIX that applies to the larger struggles in life—for those who sometimes end up as clients and for the rest of us. On a mechanical level, what allowed them to stay in the game and what allowed a rookie to show up in the right place at the right millisecond? It was ironically the ability to disregard a constructed narrative that allowed for the magic to happen. And that perhaps creates a new narrative, one that writes itself each moment. If they had allowed that narrative to become embedded in their thoughts, it is very possible that this game would have ended the same as the previous one. And the same painful narrative would continue, perhaps even strengthened by the repetition. By marching forward with conviction and disregarding the developing narrative, a surprise ending was born; an ending that gets written in the moment rather than determined by the past. This is restructuring through immediate experience.

I was thinking about all of this because I had an unlikely bobble catch and interception myself the day before, working with one of my clients.  We were close to the end of our session. We recently celebrated the 6-year anniversary of her being discharged from the hospital. Around each anniversary, as this one, we discuss her journey back to society from a place of isolation and paranoia, always a developing story. It has been a valiant struggle and has reaped rich rewards. It seemed to be the right time to wrap up, summarize, do paperwork, wind down. And then the unexpected happened. She wanted to know if she could ask a question. The next client seemed to be running late so I said, “sure!” I was counting on a simple, straightforward question. She wanted to know what it means to nullify oneself before G-d–a concept she had heard in a recent shiur. Hmmmm. Quite unexpected, clearly not an easy question to answer in a few minutes, or at all for that matter. But I decided to go with it. It was worth a try to at least begin. We mulled this over on a spiritual/psychological level and concluded that one cannot nullify anything unless first there is something to nullify. The first step then is to build the self. That developed into a brief foray into the question “Who am I?”—a question that did not rest comfortably with her. She briefly laid out the vital events and relationships in her history and summarized that her life has been “bittersweet.” And immediately remarked, “but I don’t want to remember the bitter.” So she wondered how she could build a “self” around such a negative idea. She had a narrative but had rejected it. We then discussed the possibility that it is important to remember the bitter in order to find the sweet. Like at the Seder. Embrace the narrative. We began discussing how her life narrative could possibly change. It does not have to remain mired in the “bitter” part of “bittersweet.” We set ourselves to discussing that in the next few weeks.  And then the astounding happened. We usually end our sessions reading a short excerpt from a Chassidic book and then try to tie it to what we discussed that day—her suggestion, my pleasure. I was going to suggest we delay that excerpt until next week, but the next client had still not arrived and I had paperwork to do. So I capitulated. Perhaps she could read the excerpt while I was writing my notes. And guess what the excerpt was about? Transforming our life narrative.   And guess what word it used to describe life experiences? “Bittersweet.” The excerpt suggested that we can at any moment change our narrative by not giving it power and allowing it to control our future. Bringing Hashem into each moment imbues it with infinite potential. By pulling away from ourselves and our self-constructed narratives, we make room for Hashem (the “magic” to happen) and then this writes a new narrative. It was an astounding moment that not only provided answers to our question, but unfolded in the immediate moment, right before our eyes. On a psychological level, this promised an important restructuring of her life narrative, and the development of a more integrated identity, but it had “wings” as well.




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Deborah Caplan is a clinical psychologist working at Interborough Developmental and Consultation Center.