Living a better life by understanding our stories.
The stories we hold and tell in life bring us happiness, sorrow, and war. In the current hot political landscape, storytelling has run amok!
Stories are the foundation of our identity. They include the whole of our history, mental models, assumptions, judgments, and prejudices. They determine what we believe, what we desire, what we worry about, who we assign power to, the morals we live by and are the root of our pleasure and pain. While they are the collective soup of our interactions, they mostly operate in the background without conscious awareness.
Growing up I suffered from unquestioned stories: “I am not man enough, or smart enough,” “My parents should have been around more,” or “Life is unfair, and I got dealt a crappy hand.” When I learned to question my stories, I came to understand them in a new way, and it was one hell of a wake-up call. I discovered just how omnipresent and powerful stories are.
The two speech acts I wrote about in my last post, facts and opinions, are fundamental to all stories. The distinction between the reality/truth of any moment (facts) and the composite of our beliefs, thoughts, and desires (opinions) is crucial to every interaction we have. How do stories play out in our families, work, politics, and communities? What stories do we hold about others and ourselves that do harm? What are the underlying thoughts that feed our stories? I have been curious about these questions for many years, and my explorations have been surprising, unnerving, and ultimately, freeing.
Because of language, a critical part of human evolution has been to tell tales about yesterday’s kill, who is doing what to whom, and what the weather will bring tomorrow. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book, “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind,” he states, “The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled greater numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively.” Harari describes how humans broke through the sociological barrier of 150 as the magical number in which bands of people could live and peacefully coexist. Some 70,000 years ago (unclear on why or how this evolved) our brains learned the art of fiction.
That was a game changer! We began to create and adopt explanations for the universe. Large groups of people shared common myths, i.e., the lion is our earth spirit, the god of the moon will send us a message, the earth is the center of the universe, etc. Over time and to this day, through commonly held stories, we established religions, created cultures, and generated monetary, legal, and political systems enabling us to form cities, nations and empires. The rules by which we live are determined by the stories we adopt and share.
As individuals, we innocently appropriate the stories of our cultures. Through my investigations, I discovered that I did not consciously choose most of the beliefs and mental models I held and hold to this day. As a child, I took in and believed what I was told by the adults in the room, the authority figures in my life. As children, we effortlessly adopt the good, the bad and the ugly stories from the subtle and not so subtle messages of our environment.
Taking the time to courageously and honestly investigate our stories offers a contemplative, revolutionary look at ourselves.
Good stories generate positive emotions. They make us laugh, cry, connect, educate, and entertain us.
Our histories are a collection of stories documented from a particular perspective (usually the winner’s), never quite the whole truth but vital in holding our communities together. They help us establish norms, organize, collaborate and live together. Collectively, our stories about religion, gender, sex, family, business, and government are the glue of our social and cultural systems. We consciously and unconsciously adopt stories to thrive and survive. Without them, we might go insane, and all hell could break loose.
I had many childhood experiences with happy memories of growing up on a farm and enjoying nature, being absorbed in music and learning to play the drums, and basking in the deep unconditional love of my grandmother. I soaked up the positive attributes of the culture, which in turn generated the standards and morals I try to live by: what it means to be a good father, husband, friend or employee/boss. Positive stories filled with love, joy, happiness, humor, satisfaction, and connection inspire us to live happy and productive lives. When they serve us well, stories are beautiful things.
Like it or not, the good and bad stories are a packaged deal, and the nasty ones have a not so pleasant side. Our lives unfold as a mixed bag of both happy and sad moments.
In contrast to the positive stories of my past, I also had experiences that left negative emotional scars: being taught to stuff my emotions, being told I wasn’t smart enough, or being confused by the emotional abuse of my adoptive grandfather. These experiences did not serve me well and trapped me in painful memories. Uninvestigated, negative stories haunt us psychologically and physically, limit our potential, smother our gifts, and strain our relationships. They are the root of our suffering. Our emotional lives of guilt, shame, and blame thrive on negative stories. We can live with them, but they put a damper on life. They hold us back. They live in and through us until we realize they are not the Truth.
Conflict in the world, from family quarrels to wars between nations, is rooted in defense of uninvestigated stories. Blindly hooked on our tales, we believe them and will defend them no matter what the consequences.
This is when things get truly ugly and how battles begin. If my story is true, that must mean that yours is false. If your story is BS, then I must find a way to prove you wrong and push my interpretations and beliefs on you. We need our stories, yet when they become a weapon of defense, we show up in the world as bullies, jerks, militants, and abusers. How many lives have been affected or even lost because one particular interpretation of reality was being defended?
We don’t have to look far to see the disruptive, corrosive nature of this pervasive human pattern. Political discourse is stuck in this human dilemma. Politicians defend their biased single-minded non-factual stories as if they have on blinders. Many men are not aware of their adopted prejudices toward women and don’t see or feel the consequences. Identity politics trap us in exclusive communities of judgment where we act out blind prejudices. With closed minds and unconscious biases, we cannot hear other perspectives, acknowledge when we are wrong, or imagine and create possibilities with others. Unconscious defense of our stories keeps us from listening, learning and collectively solving problems. Our better angels of empathy, understanding, and creativity are nowhere to be found.
What to do?
Practice becoming a neutral nonjudgmental witness to your stories. As we observe our stories without judgment, we also can detach from them. Like learning anything new, i.e., a foreign language, struggling with a new computer program, or improving our tennis game, we have to work at it. Learning new things can feel awkward and vulnerable. We won’t have instant success, but with patience and practice, we progress, and the payoff is worth the effort. As we observe and question our stories, we can reframe our thinking, alter our feelings and transform our relationships.
Practice becoming more aware of the distinction between the facts and the opinions embedded in our stories, and noting what is fact and what is fiction. Most of our suffering lies in the gap between the reality of what is undeniably happening, and our story of what should be, could be, or would be happening if only. Our long-held opinions contain the ammunition that makes us suffer; our desires trap us in fantasies far removed from reality, our unconscious adopted standards send us into harsh judgment in a flash, and our struggles with authority and power are painful. The practice of accepting the facts of reality while simultaneously acknowledging our stories as stories and not the truth can feel daunting, but it is the way to end our identification and ego attachment to our opinions. In my long-held “not smart enough” story, when I was able to separate out the voices of the past in my head with the facts of my academic success in college, the old negativity began to dissolve. With observation, investigation and patience, we can become free of the stories that are not serving us well.
Another practice is accepting that we were not the authors of many of our stories. This can be uncomfortable and even frightening. How could it be that stories that I have lived my whole life weren’t of my choosing? In my case, when I investigated the negative stories I had unconsciously adopted they lost their grip. With acceptance and inquiry, we are free to consciously choose what stories we want to live by.
As neutral observers, we are curious, nonjudgmental and understanding. We can ask: What stories put me on tilt? How might I feel if I was not clutching onto them so tightly? What is fueling the negativity? How would I feel differently if we accepted a story as a story rather than the Truth?
Ironically, the good the bad and the ugly require us to do the same work: begin to investigate the thinking behind our stories and unhook from cycles of self-judgment, shame and blame. With curiosity and patience, we can wisely enjoy the good, transform the bad, and stop the ugly from causing harm.
Baby steps are good. Start with small investigations and experiment with gently observing and noting a story that is not serving you well. These practices are challenging, revealing and rewarding. The results will be less stress, more peace of mind, and transformed relationships.
Next post I will propose some helpful steps for deconstructing the stories that trip us up.