How the types of stories we tell define who we are

The way we remember the events in our lives, and in particular, the traumas in our lives, can shape us as much or more than the events themselves.

 

unknown-1769656_1280Stories have the ability to take the events of our lives – big, small, grand or trifling – and from these establish cause and effect, impart and distribute importance, tie together the disparate, cast details aside, hint at symbolism and meaning, moralize, criminalize, and summarize.

How many hundreds, thousands of stories can you tell from a day, an hour, a relationship, an encounter? How many different stories can we tell from the same memories, from the same life? I am good and you are bad – or perhaps, it’s the other way round.

The stories we tell and believe define who we are.

 

Stories Help Us Make Sense of Ourselves

In an excellent article on “life stories” and how the narratives we construct from the events in our lives define who we are and how we perceive the world, Julie Beck explores the links between personality and memory, the self and our stories.

We remember our lives not as lists of facts but in narrative arcs. In order to hold onto the multitudes of memories we create, we turn these memories into narrative. Whether or not we write them down, in our minds, we pick and choose what is important, establishing connections and creating meaning as memories are turned into stories.

A hypothetical – We may remember the painful breakup as the impetus to study abroad. The decision to study abroad may be labeled as the life changing experience that sparked a desire to move later to Asia, where we met our spouse. The bullying in high school led to a stronger sense of empathy and compassion. We establish links. Consciously or not, these narratives become a form of identity. The things we choose to remember and how we choose to remember them can reflect and shape who we are.

These can change. We can rewrite. The fondly remembered, whirlwind first few months of a romance that we hoped would last, might, after a breakup, suddenly be remembered differently – perhaps there were hints of the end lying underneath all along. Perhaps these darker memories take on a greater or at least a different importance than they did before.

And while there isn’t a right or a wrong way to remember, how we remember can significantly impact who we are and how we learn from our experiences.

 

How the Types of Stories we Tell Matter

Beck tells us of the power of the redemption story. A redemption story starts off bad but ends better and having redemption themes in one’s life is generally associated with greater well-being.

Writer Andrew Solomon has a fascinating TED Talk called, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He speaks of childhood trauma, in his case being bullied at school:

I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.

Solomon was able to turn his trauma into a story of triumph, a redemption story. He says that, “while we don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities…we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” Sometimes by going through suffering and through difficulty, we are able to learn so much more than we perhaps otherwise would if life had been easier. Solomon is careful not to glamorize suffering. “Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.”

And Solomon isn’t the first to draw these conclusions. In James Baldwin’s beautiful, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” where he speaks of the oppression that Blacks have suffered in history in America, he writes,

This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, learns something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable.

The ability to find truth and redemption from our tragedies, and the ability to internalize this meaning into our own personal stories, can strengthen our identities and our experience of the world.

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James Baldwin

There is an important distinction to make however, that Beck, Solomon, and Baldwin all allude to. We have to be able to turn these traumas into triumphs, into redemption stories in order to obtain these lessons and meaning. Solomon tells us, “We cannot bear a pointless torment.”

Sometimes however, we never create the redemption story. Sometimes, the story isn’t told. It’s repressed. This might come from shame or fear. If a story isn’t created and told, “your memory for that event may be less flexible and give you less chance for growth.”

There can be a darker side to our stories. The alternative to the story of redemption can be one where the individual positions oneself as the victim. This is especially dangerous when a group of traumatized individuals identify themselves as victims of a group of villainized “Others.” A story of victimhood can turn into what author Amin Maalouf characterizes as the propensity of persons to turn to violence when they suspect they are being threatened. James Baldwin warned against the same as he saw the rise of militant black groups in response to their oppression.

And a possible key towards preventing victim thinking? Philosopher Jonathan Sacks in his book on violence recommends empathy. “To be cured of potential violence toward the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.”

Truth is multifaceted. And almost as important as how the action played out, is how the action is told after the fact, whether it as a part of our own personal story, or in a story of something bigger than ourselves. We can teach and we can also hurt each other depending on the types of stories we tell. In life and in history, the stories outlive the actions.

“The story of things done outlives the act” and “a thing said walks in immortality if it has been said well.” The bards also, Homer-like, “straightened the story . .  . in . .  . magic words to charm all men thereafter.” They did not merely report, they also set it right — Aias had slain himself from shame, but Homer had known better and “honored him above all men.” (from The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt)

 

On Glimpsing More of Those We Love

The beauty of discovering our loved ones through their writing, from the to-do list to letters to marginalia

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I was listening to a podcast some weeks ago where one of my role models, Krista Tippett, was interviewing another of my role models, Maria Popova. It was a lovely conversation that explored the meaning and wisdom Maria Popova seeks to create through her popular blog, brainpickings.org. Anyways, Maria Popova said something that resonated with me. She was speaking of her great grandfather who she never met and of discovering some of his books.

“And he had — his marginalia were extraordinary. And I felt this strange kinship with him through the years, through the cultures and the eras and these different media. Because what I do when I read is essentially what he did, which is he wrote in the margins all these notes on things that he didn’t understand and wanted to understand. He underlined passages that he noted were beautiful language. And words that he didn’t know that he would look up in the dictionary, he would circle them and then write the translation. But it was this sort of intellectual dance with another mind that you could see in the margins of his books. And I was just very moved by it.”

And what a beautiful thought. She was able to see a very authentic and private side of the great grandfather she never knew through his notes and marginalia. I think there’s something special about it being his own personal notes. Not really meant for other eyes, our private notes are less self-conscious, less filtered, and thus more intimate, raw, and authentic.

I was reminded of something the philosopher Theodore Zeldin has once said, that one may often know better one who is dead that we have never met from what they have left in their private writing and letters than we may know those we interact with in the flesh. In the flesh, in “real life,” we conceal so much and present only small reflections of ourselves to those we meet and interact with. And even with those we love, how often do conversations go beyond the surface, past the day to day conversations about an upcoming dinner to plan for, a child’s problems at school, or an event on the evening news? And when we do go a bit deeper (into feelings or religion, for example), aren’t we so careful not to offend?

And so it is a luxury, something quite special I think when we’re allowed into the private notes of someone we love, or someone we might have loved. And when we can have ‘conversations’ with someone from the past, through interacting with their written words.

My dad wrote once about discovering the letters of his grandmother among his father’s possessions after his father passed away. He found several letters and scraps of letters written by his grandmother in the weeks before she died. Several of them are crumbling and close to falling apart from how often it appears they’ve been reread. My dad, in discovering these letters was incredibly touched. He had a record of letters from mother to son, revealing a grandmother he never knew and a side of his father too that he hadn’t seen. My dad wrote of the find, “It is literally hearing a voice from the past. Someone I remember so little about because I was so ‘wee’ when she passed away has now been revealed to me and I now feel as if I ‘know’ them a lot better, it’s almost like being graced with a peek into their soul.

There’s something very beautiful about being granted access to more of those we love and especially in the intimate way of reading their writing, which is the very closest thing to their thoughts.

Even the mundane can be special. I recall a tweet I saw from Alain de Botton in January, “Glimpsing someone else’s to-do list – like watching them sleeping – tends always to be endearing.” Isn’t it? It’s the person, the person themselves without the pretensions and cover up that we’re interested in and each opportunity we have of glimpsing this is truly special. Even the to-do list and marginalia in books.