This is an essay about the power of stories. I’m going to start with two different stories about the same event in my past:
My story part 1:
My first husband was an uncaring, aloof man who made me feel small as a way of keeping the upper hand in our marriage. Whenever I complained about my job, he would get angry and tell me I should just quit if I wasn’t happy instead of bothering him with my whining. He also refused to allow me access to his banking account because his mother was always overdrawing his father’s account and they always fought about it. Any time I said I was unhappy, he said I was being overly emotional and trying to manipulate him. But I stayed, and the longer I stayed there, the more I shrank into the version of me he decided I was. I mean that literally by the way. Toward the end, my digestive system rebelled against the depression and hopelessness I felt. For the last six months or so, I was always wildly hungry but nauseated by the thought of food. My diet eventually consisted of cheerios with milk and instant mashed potatoes. At some point, I realized that I had lost 40 pounds in less than two months and it finally dawned on me that one way or another, my body was going to get me out of this relationship if the rest of me wasn’t willing to stand up. And so I finally left.
My story part 2:
I knew my first husband didn’t want to get married but we were living together, and I was a good girl who would only live with someone if it was a really serious relationship that was leading to a really serious commitment. I had also recently graduated into a local recession that left me vying for entry level marketing positions with 5 and 10-year veterans. I didn’t want to have to lean on my parents, and I also was too afraid to strike out on my own and move where jobs were available. So I told myself that I couldn’t move because I was in a serious relationship and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. He tried his best to change my mind, set up all sorts of ridiculous conditions, but I was relentless in my willingness to accept almost anything he threw at me. In the end, he agreed to propose to me so that I wouldn’t leave him. Because being alone again was what he was afraid of. And that was our marriage, just under five years of insisting that we were in a serious relationship and that we could actually stand each other. I eventually got a real job and my own car, and that gave me enough of a taste of independence that I left him.
So here’s the question, which one is the truth? Trick question because neither of these stories is true. Those are both my stories from my point of view. I spent a long time believing the first one, but I think the second version is closer to the truth. And all truth or no truth, I also think the second one is a healthier story for me. I may not come out smelling like a rose, but at least I’m an active participant. That first version leaves me blameless but also powerless. Eventually, I accepted that taking some of the blame was worth getting back some of my power.
Human beings make meaning by telling stories. Everything that has ever happened to you, if you remember it, is a story now. We like to think that we just remember everything exactly the way it happened but we don’t. We regularly throw out details that don’t fit our story of what happened or pull in the details of unrelated events that support it. I once got lost in the woods near my house when I was a kid because I had bet the other kids that they could blindfold me and put me anywhere in the woods and I would be able to find my way out (because apparently, I was telling myself a story about my incredible sense of direction). Now my memory is that I did get lost but that I eventually found my own way out. My brother is convinced that I never did find my way out and that he found me. Knowing what I know now about human memory I honestly have no idea who’s right. I do find it interesting that we are the heroes of each of our recollections.
Now, this may seem dismaying because I’m essentially arguing against a shared understanding of reality here. If reality is only our personal collection of stories, then what is up and what is down? But before you give up all hope, I want you to understand that this is the source of your superpower. Once we realize that we are the authors of these stories, we gain the power to edit them. Now that’s a great power but as we comic fans know, with that power comes great responsibility.
We have the power to go back and change the way we see what happened we have the chance to bring a perspective that shows us our own failings but also the gifts we have to get through the trouble we brought on ourselves. If you survived it, you don’t have to be afraid to look at what you could learn from it.
I’m not saying that people who suffered abuse when they were young or vulnerable should think about how they should have done something differently to stop that abuse or spend a lot of time trying to develop empathy for their abusers. I am saying that the fact that you are here today means that you have more power than you realize. If you are here today and you were not broken, or you are not breaking now, I want you to know that I think that means you have amazing powers of resilience and strength.
So, how does one go about editing their life stories? Start by taking a hard look at the stories you tell about what happened to you. Are there villains? Were you the villain? I’d be suspicious of any narrative that paints you as either completely or not at all at fault. I know it can be scary, but anytime you think the lesson was, that you should avoid jerks in the future, or that you are a horrible person who deserves pain, go back to it. I think that there’s more for you to learn about yourself. When we are brave enough to sit with our own failings as I was in that second version of the story, we have the opportunity to grow. And when we can accept our failures, we have an easier time of accepting other people’s failures. We can find a way to react with kindness instead of judgment.
You should also accept that your life will not fit neatly into a narrative most of the time. We only get a beginning and an end. We like to think in terms of character arcs, but life isn’t really that way. So be careful of claiming a lesson you learned as an absolute or a failure you experienced as being irredeemable, life goes on and has a habit of surprising us. I think if you can find that spark of kindness, you can roll with backsliding on your big lesson and you may yet find a backdoor that leads to your own redemption.
You should be looking to make stories that give you the tools to make a better now for yourself. I think this has been most hammered home to me by my current situation of being unemployed. To be searching for a job is to be always concerned about what others think of you. And it’s as easy to be overly buoyed by good interactions as pulled under by the bad ones. I might then see much of my past as a series of missteps or as a series of triumphs, but it’s always the same life. Knowing that these are stories that I can control, I’ve been able to focus my memory on stories of how my strength and wisdom mostly won out and what I learned when they didn’t. A good version of your story will give you the humility to know that you aren’t always the smartest person in the room; the openness to understand your real strengths and weaknesses, and the kindness to know that everyone is probably trying their best at that moment.
Okay, so excellent, you’re all going to run out and rewrite those personal stories, and we’re all quickly going to become much better people, yay! Now, how about those bigger stories, the stories you have or have been told about the groups you belong to and the ones you don’t. What is your story about this country and other countries and the world itself? What stories do you tell yourself about science? What stories do you tell yourself about belief?
I would suggest for one thing that you be suspicious of simple stories, as Economist, Tyler Cowan said in his Ted Talk entitled, “Be Suspicious of Simple Stories,”
Stories in order to work have to be simple, easily grasped, easily told to others, easily remembered. So stories will serve dual and conflicting purposes, and very often they will lead us astray.
…It’s the stories, very often, that you like the most, that you find the most rewarding, the most inspiring. The stories that don’t focus on opportunity cost, or the complex, unintended consequences of human action, because that very often does not make for a good story…
There are people using your love of stories to manipulate you. Pull back and say: “… what are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell?” Start telling yourself those, and then see if any of your decisions change… You can never get out of the pattern of thinking in terms of stories, but you can improve the extent to which you think in stories, and make some better decisions.
So I do think it is a useful guide to be wary of simple stories that feel good but give an incomplete picture of reality. We are struggling so much these days with stories that we love and want to believe, but that may be really bad for us. Stories that stoke our outrage to get our clicks but end up being about much less than the end of the world. Stories that provoke our worst mean-spirited glee in making fun of the other side while distracting us from the real work we should be doing to preserve our norms and institutions and to stand up against the very real problems that we are facing. Adrenaline and schadenfreude are not going to save us. We have work to do.
Kids love simple stories, where everything is easy and black and white. I know I used to love those stories, but they, unfortunately, encouraged my judgemental streak. I was so sure I was a hero, that I was special that I felt like I could laugh at the inferior people who had problems. In my first account of how my first marriage failed, I said I got sick at the end. I wrote that I was depressed. And I was, but not because I was in a bad marriage, because I was going to have to admit I was in a bad marriage. Just thinking about the weight of my cruelty crashing back on me like a wave, of being exposed as a failure just like the rest of humanity, it took my breath away like a punch to the gut. I think that’s what was wrong with my stomach.
It’s a good idea to think of simple stories like simple sugars, neither are healthy for you in excess, try to limit your consumption of both. You don’t want to be distracted by raw emotions or lulled into a false sense of your own superiority any more than you want to get diabetes or cancer.
The last thing I want to say about stories is don’t be satisfied with just the stories told by people like you. Get out there and take in as many different perspectives as possible. There is a danger in a simple story, and there is a danger in a single story.
As writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
When I was in high school, I got a get-ready-for-college guide from an S.A.T. prep session and in addition to listing all of the test registration dates and suggested courses for each year, for every summer they listed one suggested activity, “Read Widely,” which made me laugh because it sounded so odd. However, in either my Junior or Senior summer, I did finally take that advice. I had taken an elective called, World Novels that consisted exclusively of American and British authors and it left me kind of mad. I mean really, not even one work in translation? So I took that summer to rectify the problem, I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chinua Achebe, Umberto Eco, and Yukio Mishima. I was pretty proud of myself, but I had managed only to read men that summer. It’s only been very recently that I’ve begun to read the work of African American men and women. Obviously, I’m never going to read all of the stories, but I know I gain a lot from looking at the world from the eyes of someone who has a different view of it.
I like how the author Elif Shafak, put it in her Ted Talk, “The Politics of Fiction.” In this passage; she’s been discussing her grandmother’s habits:
Now one other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey is to cover mirrors with velvet or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out. It’s an old Eastern tradition based on the knowledge that it’s not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at his own reflection. Ironically, living in communities of the like-minded is one of the greatest dangers of today’s globalized world. And it’s happening everywhere, among liberals and conservatives, agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor, East and West alike. We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people. In my opinion, one way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see.
Research suggests that people who live in diverse communities are very supportive of that diversity. The people who struggle with the thought of diversity tend to exist in communities where the concept of diversity really is just a thought. We fear what we don’t know. Fortunately, we are living in an era where we are finally beginning to see new voices being given a chance to break through. For the fearful, it has never been easier to dip a toe into a sea of content from vastly different people, to discover gay characters, and black characters and Asian characters all written and directed by gay people and black people and Asian people so that they have the reality of a lived experience and are not relegated to the role of villain, or victim or punchline. You have no further to go than your library or Netflix to find out more about the world and as the world gets smaller, don’t we all have that obligation?
I hope my stories and this talk have inspired you to think of your stories and this world a little bit differently. It’s not easy to stand up here and admit these dark truths about myself, so I do hope it’s helped someone.
I’ll end with a quote that speaks to the difficulty and also the importance of reaching beyond our bubbles. This one is from Lisa Pryor in a New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Beyond my White Sydney Bubble.”
I once learned, on the very different topic of grief, that sometimes you can get so caught up worrying about saying the wrong thing that you end up saying nothing, and that is the worst thing of all. We need to keep stumbling toward each other, with goodwill and humility, nurturing connections that are real, knowing there will be times when we get it wrong, listening and adjusting as we go, but moving toward each other nonetheless.
So get out there, get your own stories straight, be wary of the simple story you want so much to believe but be open to all stories. Be willing to sit with discomfort, to see your own value and to admit fault. Wield the power of stories wisely. I can’t wait to hear the stories you tell.