Personal Narratives

This post is an introduction to the next four topics I want to talk about: non-judgement, soul contracts, free will/ determinism, faith.

The reason I want to cover this topic is because it is a bridge between the idea of perspectives in general and the more specific perspectives that I use to help me navigate life. The idea of the personal narrative is the idea of telling our own story, and it is an important and empowering idea which is used in personal development and various branches of psychology. It can also be found frequently in different spiritual branches and is a great tool to use for both reframing circumstances in our lives and taking greater responsibility in our own belief systems.

I remember a lesson about this from one of my social work classes. In that lesson my professor told a story about two kids who grew up in the same abusive home and suffered the same kinds of punishments including things like being locked in a dark closet for hours at a time. When one of those children grew up he talked about excruciating trauma he had suffered, the fear of dark enclosed spaces, and cruelty of his parents. The other one recognized the harm that had been done but was significantly less impaired by it, instead he said he thought of the closest like caves to explore and spaces away from the chaos outside. The two kids told themselves different stories about the meaning of their childhood and interpreted their punishment in different ways. The result eventually became that they viewed life from two completely different perspectives and as adults created different types of lives based on those frameworks. This isn’t to justify abuse or to say that someone who suffers from it should only re-frame it in a less appalling way to feel better- but it was an implication of the role that our own interpretation of our lives and the events in them has on the choices we make as we move beyond those situations.

Life is full of different situations and circumstances. A person will experience any number of perceived successes and failures throughout their existence. They will meet with people that they perceive as friends and those that seem like enemies and many people that fall into shades of neutrality between those two polls. Some people will have a greater amount of set backs than others, some climbs might seem steeper or fraught with more difficulty, but all of us will have challenges to overcome and moments that push us to grow or retreat. However, the meaning we attribute to any given situation and the pattern of meaning we eventually weave into the way we interpret our own story will have a greater long term impact on our experiences than any single event in and of itself. This is because the meaning we attribute to things eventually forms a belief system that we carry with us throughout our lives. It creates the lens through which we see the world and ourselves and that lens will then re-enforce itself so that we will continue to find more things to support what we already see. Overtime this pattern becomes stronger and stronger so that when we stop and look back over our experiences the themes that appear will be largely linked to this framework. It won’t mean that we have never had any experiences counter to this lens, but because the lens reinforces itself we are less likely to acknowledge those contradictory experiences or we might interpret them in a way that isn’t contradictory at all.

An overly-simplified example might be something like this: a kid is running and is pushed down by another kid. He interprets this experience into a belief that says people are cruel and unpredictable and will harm you to prevent your from getting where you want to go. From this interpretation more emphasis will be placed on the cruelty of the kid that pushed him than the kindness of the one that stopped and helped him up. In life this kid might become more defensive and less trusting. As an adult he might be unwilling to help others because he will see them as enemies (This example is very exaggerated to make a point). The same experience could have been interpreted in the opposite way with less emphasis placed on the person who pushed him and more on the one that stopped to help him. From that perspective the kid might see that people go out of their way to be kind to others, he might be more willing to stop and help someone when he sees them in trouble and might develop more trusting and open relationships in his adult life which will make it easier for him to navigate society.

Obviously, this example is very over-simplified and there are usually multiple instances of events that we use to shape our perspective on life including things taught to us by other people and social systems. The point, though, is that often we attach meaning without noticing that we are doing it. We have an experience and without realizing it we form a connection between that event and some type of interpretation. After many events with many interpretations we have a pattern of experiences and meanings that create a narrative that we tell ourselves without knowing we are saying it and that shapes how we see who we are, the world, and our place in relation to the world. This perspective then shapes our responses to new events and reinforces itself so that we often continue to create the same story over and over without realizing we are doing it.

The power of contemplating our own personal narrative is that it gives us the chance to look at the lens through which we are viewing ourselves, our experiences, and the wider world. Do we see ourselves as the hero in our own story? Or do we feel like life is always out to get us and we are at the mercy of others? Do we notice all the challenges we have overcome? Or do we see a landscape marred by inadequacy and failure?

In truth there are many ways to interpret each event and many stories we can tell about ourselves. Since there are many ways of looking at each event and at the pattern of events, we have many choices about which perspective we will take. Having a choice about how we will interpret an event means that even if we cannot control everything that happens to us we have the ability to own the outcome through the interpretation of that event an the way we will use that experience to navigate future choices. This is how having a sense of your personal narrative provides a greater sense of empowerment and responsibility. You cannot control everything you have experienced or will experience in the future, but you can choose how you will interpret those experiences and what you will do with that interpretation. Will you choose to see that set back as evidence of failure or will you see your own resilience as you get up and decide what to do next? Will you continue to listen to the stories other people tell about your or will you decide to create your own interpretation?

Belief systems and perspectives have a lot of power, and ultimately it is our choice who we give that power too. If someone tells you that life is a certain way, you may not have the ability to prove them wrong, but you have the choice to believe them or not.

There is a deeper layer I want to get to with this, but I feel like it will go a little off topic or take too long to develop. I’ll leave it here anyway and maybe come back to explain it at another point of time (or if you ask me personally). We choose how we see the world and that choice influences how we respond to it, but it is ultimately our responsibility to decide if we want to continue to use that lens or not. If we look out at the world with fear and apprehension we will strive for sense of safety and this will cause us to close up our walls and push people out. There is nothing wrong with this, it creates a sense of safety and safety is real human need. However, if we want to see a world where people have more open doors and understanding for one another then we cannot use fear as the primary framework for interpreting events. Looking at people with compassion, understanding and trust, can leave us more vulnerable to pain but it can also reduce the pain of loneliness and isolation by allowing us to connect with each other and see the humanity we all possess. Whether we choose to cling to safety or be open to trust is ultimately our choice. It isn’t right or wrong, it’s up to us what we want to create and how we want to interact. For me, life in a bubble of safety is more painful and a much greater risk than a life where we trust and interact with others, but I know many people disagree with me. Still, I remember a famous quote that one of my friends used to love by Gandhi, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

And I think that he is right. We cannot create a world of love, compassion, and understanding while responding to each other with fear and distrust. We cannot create a life of success and joy and enthusiasm while telling the story of our inability, servitude, and inadequacy. We create a new world by finding a new way to tell our story and then by living that story from a framework that we want to see more of around us. As we do that, we create the energy, experience, and life that we dream about.

That is how perspectives and story telling help us. They plant seeds at the core of our being to grow the lives that we eventually get to experience and shape the world that we live in and then pass down to future generations. The stories we tell, the beliefs we hold, these are the seeds we choose to plant. Planting new seeds doesn’t mean that you immediately see a new garden, but over time they take the place of whatever was grown before, and so interpretation eventually creates a new reality. Every event that we choose to interpret in a new way pushes us towards a new experience of reality and eventually when enough seeds have grown into enough plants we create an entirely new set of experiences—first for ourselves and then for everyone around us—because whatever we grow inside ourselves eventually creeps out and becomes part of the external world that is shared by those around us.

This is how we change ourselves and the world through something as small as a change in perspective.

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