I sit down this week with a tangle of feelings around what I want to say. It’s hard to know how to begin.
Sometimes I think with longing of the days I lived alone. There were things about being alone that were destroying me, which is why I left that life, but I did have the ability to control my audiovisual environment, and that’s not possible when living under a roof with someone else.
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I seem to be always wincing away from things lately. I avoid the living room because I don’t want to catch a headline on the muted CNN news channel out of the corner of my eye. If the sound is up, I don’t want to be anywhere where I can hear what’s being said. I’ve taken to singing a song to myself, or reciting a piece of poetry or a Celtic prayer to provide audible distraction when the TV is on, the adult equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and saying “la la la” when my brother is teasing me.
It’s nearly impossible to be online without seeing headlines and commentary, both during leisure and at work as I research for my medical transcription job.
The worst thing, though, is how I flinch away from other people, especially my partner, whom I love. He’s on Facebook, of course. I’m not. He’s gregarious, outgoing, outspoken, intelligent and has hundreds of “friends.” He’s also a news junkie and a voracious fact checker and science reader. He has, you might say, strong views. He thrives on controversy. I don’t.
Sharing the things that occupy our attention, questions, observations and what we learn is the most vital part of our connection and normally I treasure it, but not in these times. Right now I don’t want to talk about what’s occupying our attention, and I’m miserable about that.
The current political and social landscape feels like a black hole to me. It’s exhausting and horrifyingly futile. Half of the “news” is about what might happen. What is happening is so disturbing on so many levels I don’t even want to deal with that half of it. All of it together is like drowning in sewage.
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At this point Americans can’t even agree on what the “real news” is. It all depends on which alternative facts we choose to believe.
I don’t want to talk about it, hear about it or think about it. I want to play music, watch the light come through the windows, fill the bird feeders and watch the birds, take a walk and listen to the trees sleep, feel the grit and crunch of ice under my feet. I want to talk about the simple pleasures of the day, like clearing ice dams off the roof, running into town for groceries, something we’d like to learn or do together, a book we’d like to read. I’d like to put up a couple of new shelves for our spilling-over DVD collection, clean a year’s worth of cat hair and dust from the old shelves, wipe down the DVD cases and reorder them.
What I don’t want to do is get sucked into an endless individual, community, national and even worldwide debate about who’s right. That’s what so much of the “news” seems to be these days — a contest. Each side has a stockpile of memes, quotes, leaders, “news” sources, labels, ideologies, statistics, videos, pictures, threads and articles as ammunition. Oh, and don’t forget the tweets! People on each side are cutting, contemptuous, scornful, threatening and just plain mean.
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Everyone, it seems, wants to win and be right. Everyone hopes passionately for the chance to say “I told you so,” to the other side. We seem to believe that agreement and validation from others makes us even more right than we were in the first place, and the righter we are, the wronger all those other knuckleheads are.
I was never a big competitor. I can’t see victory in being right. Sure, it’s always pleasurable to find out one was right all along, but being right automatically presumes someone else is wrong, and I’ve spent so much of my life feeling wrong that I can’t glory in watching anyone else go through it.
I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to have opinions and beliefs, and I’m not suggesting it’s useless to take action in support of our beliefs. What I am saying is that I question the usefulness of expending our energy on arguing over the size of a crowd, for example. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything. The only possible constructive thing that comes out of an argument like that is the satisfaction of being right, but we aren’t satisfied unless the wrong ones agree with our rightness. A Trump ally is never in a million years going to convince a Trump enemy about crowd statistics, or vice versa. It’s not going to happen. Every word and moment we put into that argument is wasted energy and effort and further divides the two camps. It doesn’t create change, understanding and agreement. It cements and further polarizes our differences.
If our agenda is in fact to create a bloody, bitter divide, then pardon me. I didn’t get the memo. In that case, we’re doing a great job and I’m wasting my time here.
I myself was hoping for change and understanding.
Pretend, for just a moment, that everything you believe is absolutely right. Everything. Your religious belief; your belief about how to eat appropriately; your political beliefs; your stance on abortion, sexuality and marriage; your beliefs about climate change and the environment. Luxuriate in it. YOU ARE RIGHT! Everyone who believes differently or contradicts you or refuses to listen to the facts is both stupid and wrong. Well done.
Now what? Or maybe I should ask, so what? Do you have more power? Will your life work better? Will the people who disagree with you behave themselves now — straighten up and fly right? Will your health and relationships be better? Will you make more money? Be less stressed?
Right or wrong, we all still wake up in the morning and think about money, food, families, friends, work, play, health, weather, time, the future, the past, hopes and fears. We all live on a planet called Earth. Right or wrong, the same face is going to look back at us from the mirror. However right or wrong we are, everyone else is going to go right on being wrong. Or right, as the case may be.
So, you win. You’re right and I’m wrong. Congratulations.
Now that that’s out of the way, may I give you a hug? Would you like to take a walk? Would you like to come swim with me, or dance? Shall we make a lunch date? The kitchen’s a mess — will you come do dishes with me? What kind of music are you listening to these days? What are you reading?
Could you, by any chance, put up a couple of shelves for me?
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except where otherwise noted
Stories. How many stories can you tell about your life?
Story has always been deeply embedded in the human experience. Every piece of art tells a story. We read, watch television, go to movies, listen to the news, fall in love with music. Stories, all.
Stories teach, entertain, connect, inspire and guide us.
Stories are prisons and torture chambers. They brainwash and manipulate. They can be powerfully limiting.
The paradox of story lies in the power we give it.
Think about a story from your own life. Something painful. Likely it’s a story you’ve told yourself many times. It’s important. It’s part of who you are and how you understand yourself. It’s a place from which you look at the world. It’s absolutely True. You know. You were there. It was such a crippling experience you can’t ever, ever forget.
Stories can’t happen in a void, so there’s an event of some kind, an action, a word, a relationship, other characters in your story.
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Let’s say your story is about four people who spend an hour together on a walk. In that hour everybody sees, smells and hears, thinks and feels different things. After that walk, and maybe for years afterward, each of those four people can tell a story about that day, that walk, that experience. Every one of those stories is partly true. Every one of those stories is inadequate and incomplete. The truest story is the one all four people tell together. If one person’s story is refused, denied, disbelieved or lost, all four people have lost something important out of that hour of their lives. They’ve lost an opportunity for understanding, for compassion, for connection and for becoming just a little bit bigger.
The thing about story is that we create it. Something happens. We have an experience. We have feelings, like mad, glad, sad or scared. We have thoughts about our feelings. We make up a story. We tell it to ourselves over and over again as we try to make sense of our experience, or recover from some hurt. We believe our story to the point that we refuse to consider changing it. We behave as if our story is True.
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Now we have a story that imprisons us. The story has all our power. We hurt people, break relationships and viciously defend our story. We will kill people, including ourselves, to maintain our story. Not only that, others must accept our story in its entirety. They must never question it, add to it or take away from it. Our story becomes us. A threat to our story becomes a threat to our life.
We’ve made something up, chosen to believe in it and now it rules us.
A lot of people talk about truth and lies as though one is black and one is white. As a storyteller, a writer and a human being, I question that. What is truth, really? If I was walking with you on that day and I saw a beautiful grass snake and you saw a dangerous serpent, which one of us is lying? What is the truth? I was charmed, you were horrified. So, I must be a sensitive scientist type with big glasses and a mouthful of Latin. And you’re a beautiful, sexy woman with big boobs and brown eyes who needs to be taken care of in the terrifying outdoors.
There. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it. Don’t you dare try to give me a different version.
See what I mean?
Isn’t the truth that two people saw a snake and had two different experiences and sets of feelings around it? Don’t we all have histories, fears, beliefs, prejudices, expectations and filters through which we experience life? Are yours right and mine wrong? Are mine right and yours wrong?
Can’t we allow room for everyone to experience what they experience?
Some people lie, deliberately and with intent. We all know people like that. We learn quickly not to trust them.
Some people distort. They’re caught up in their story about themselves, about the world, about others. They’ve been deeply damaged and wounded, or they struggle with addiction, or they have health problems, or they take medication, or they struggle with mental illness. Am I prepared to call them liars?
No. But I recognize the danger of some of their stories.
Does investment in a distorted story mean the storyteller is not a valuable person worthy of love and compassion? I hope not. I’ve my own set of distorted stories. I think we all have.
Other, very dangerous people deliberately manipulate with story. They invalidate yours in favor of theirs. They tell you you’re wrong, you didn’t understand, you’re too sensitive, you’re too dramatic, you’re too crazy; you’re hateful, bigoted, disloyal, a liar. They tell you your story didn’t happen, that they didn’t hit you, even though there’s blood in your mouth.
So what do we do about story — ours and everyone else’s?
Maybe the most important thing is to be aware that much of what’s happening in our head is a story. It might be partly true. It might not be. It’s certainly part of something larger than our point of view. Our feelings are ours and we need to honor them, but our thoughts about our feelings can become a real problem.
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We could ask others about their stories. We could be open, curious, nonjudgmental, compassionate, respectful and prepared to be enriched by someone’s perceptions and experiences. We could, in short, build healthy connection.
If we’re holding tight to a story that hurts us, angers us, or is otherwise destructive, we could go to other characters in the story, tell them how we feel and ask for help understanding the situation.
We can build trust and respect with ourselves. We can claim the power and dignity to form our own opinions about others, based on our own observations and experience, and decide when to build connection and when to limit it. We can refrain from repeating destructive stories to or about others. We can take responsibility for our own rigidity and blind spots; our intolerance, injustice and poor communication skills, and own that we might make mistakes in judgement.
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We can be wary and watchful of people who impose their stories on us. Some people use story like a hammer and chisel, relentlessly splitting connection and relationship. In the end they hurt themselves the most, but many a relationship has been lost because of this kind of behavior.
We can pay attention to red flags such as feeling confused, feeling torn, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted by drama, and feeling dragged down or being asked to keep destructive secrets. Healthy people in our lives who truly love us will never try to split us from others or force us to make a “them or me” choice. Healthy people do not share destructive personal stories about others publicly, nor do they tolerate or enable this kind of behavior. Healthy people communicate honestly, directly and clearly and recognize the ineffectiveness of black-and-white thinking.
In the end, our only power lies within the circumference of our own lives. If we want others to give us a chance to speak when someone tells a distorted story about us, we must do the same for them. If we want to be heard, understood and treated with respect and compassion, we must extend those to others. If we’re hurt and angry, we must find appropriate and effective ways to talk about that, either with a professional or with others in our story. We can’t control what others say and believe about us. We can only live the most authentic lives possible and hope that our actions and words speak for themselves. We can be responsible for our own stories.
For more on the power of story, here’s another blog you might be interested in. Same subject, different writer. It’s titled Who Are You?
Also, here’s a link to a remarkable teacher, Byron Katie, who asks, “Who are you without your story?” I highly recommend her.
Do your stories about yourself limit you? Do your stories about others limit them? Can you consider another version of one of your stories? What needs to happen for you to revise one destructive story you’ve created?
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except where otherwise noted