Saturday, April 04, 2009

Stories Define Reality

"Never let the truth ruin a good story." - Mark Twain

Storytelling is one of our most deep set traditions for entertainment and information sharing. We are told that the best storytellers in villages are the most revered. They are respected for their experience and wisdom. Our brains are wired to consume information through stories. As Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, "Stories are easier to remember [than isolated factoids]--because in many ways, stories are how we remember. 'Narrative imagining--story--is the fundamental instrument of thought,' writes cognitive scientist mark Turner in his book The Literary Mind. 'Rational capacities depend on it. it is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining... Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories."

Be careful with your stories, because just as Words are Powerful, they are especially so when shaped in stories. Philosophers and psychologists have long held that our realities are created internally in our minds. This also shows up a lot in popular arts, such as the wonderful movie Big Fish. The Matrix (movie) delves a lot into how the mind can be fed stories to shape our realities. Since reality is all about the stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that we tell ourselves become our truth.

Stories are shaping
We often tell ourselves stories and metaphors that shape how we behave. Did we tell the story that we were wronged? If so, we act wronged, we act like a victim, we think of the other person as cruel or evil. On the other hand, if we tell a story to ourselves casting the other person as confused and upset, as trapped, we can instead have sympathy for the person. In the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the main characters, as brothers, lose their parents as children and grow up in the slums, being beaten and tormented regularly. They survice by clawing and scratching their way to a meager existence, until they learn to steal for their bread. Once you know this back story, it is much easier to have compassion for them than if you simply saw they stealing your shoes.

Stories are limiting

When we wrap a story around something, it tricks us into believing that we understand what is going on. We give one or a few reasons to the back-story, whereas ultimately the situation is unknowable in its entirety. It is infinitely broad and deep, and only a part of it can be played out. I see this a lot like asking a "Do you want to do X?" question and looking for a yes-or-no response. Ultimately we have to make the yes or no choice, but the people witnessing the decision may think it means something very cut and dry, when there are actually a lot of factors at play -- see the Mind as a Committee metaphor.

Untelling our stories
Recently, I discussed the nature of stories with my close friend and fraternity brother Josiah Seale. He brought up the idea of "untelling our stories". Wow, what a powerful notion. One of the ways that we do this is by learning enough or understanding enough to replace the old stories with new stories. In counseling terms, this is the important step of resolving the past in the present. This is possible to do whether the parties of the stories are still alive and available or if they are not. It is also possible to just let the stories resolve and to not take them personally (one of the Four Agreements of don Miguel Ruiz). At the end of the day, what happened, happened. This sometimes makes us uncomfortable, which is a wonderful challenge for us as warriors of loving-kindness, learning how to Lean Into Discomfort.

This post is dedicated to my close college friend, Josiah Seale, who inspires in how he lives his life. He lives his unique life first, while at the same time having compassion for others.

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