Engrossed in a novel recently, despite (or perhaps because of?) a very sympathetic, strong and interesting female lead, at times I found myself frustrated: shouting at her (in the privacy of my own head), annoyed by the decisions she was making – surely it was obvious to her that what she was going to do was going to cause her problems later?!
But of course, I had more pieces of the puzzle than her. I had her life described to me as a narrative, given meaning by a story, whereas she, like the rest of us, just had those moments of meaning strung together like dew drops on a spider’s web, held together by the strands of time and nothing more.
And, of course, I had other people’s perspectives given to me by the author, perspectives sometimes from scenes where she wasn’t even present. And all these added to her viewpoint to make a much more complex tapestry of meaning, which I was able to see from my external perspective, but as she was just one of those threads it was much harder for her to see the whole at the time.
An objective view point
I also had an objective perspective. Whilst I cared about her as a character, she was still just on the page (kindle!), not living, breathing, huffing, puffing, uming and ahhing next to me. I didn’t have to suffer the consequences of her decision. It didn’t have the same impact on me as on her. This objective perspective meant I wasn’t blinded or biased by some of the factors which affected her judgement. I wasn’t swayed to one side or the other by personal motives. I had no vested interest apart from the one the author had created within me.
Sense through stories
Psychologists have found stories play a huge role in our lives. Although many of us think of them as something reserved for children – ‘tell us a story!’ – Psychologists and others have now realized that the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and every strand of our lives, creates meaning.
In addition to stories communicating great human truths (and smaller ones), people also connect to each other through stories or ‘narratives’. We also connect to our own lives through stories – we use them to create meaning about ourselves and identities, and how we understand and interpret our lives and the things that happen to us. And we look for meaning when we’re confronted with someone doing something we don’t understand – who hasn’t made up a story for the indifferent customer service agent in front of us at a coffee stand, or about the interesting character we drive past in the street? We make up stories to explain things satisfactorily to ourselves. And sometimes, just for fun.
Often when I’m travelling, or I come across a particular cultural difference, I find myself trying to explain it in my head. But much like the character I talked about at the beginning of this post, I don’t have all the facts. My story has holes in it. But a narrative (usually) helps me to empathise with the person as I start to put myself in their position, which helps me as a psychologist no less than as a human being.
A recent experience, mentioned in the diary post I wrote, had me create a story about someone sitting next to me on the plane – someone I didn’t like the look of on sight, due to who knows what subtleties in his manner and dress. And in fact, I was dead wrong. The story I had created about him was so completely off base, owning up to it is a sort of penance. I had thought him a shifty character – someone I wouldn’t necessarily want to chat to on the plane. When we did engage in some conversation, it turned out he was coming to the island because his mother, who had run a hotel with his father (he was Norwegian), had died unexpectedly at 68, and he was coming to help arrange the funeral. Any possible story I had made up to create meaning in the way I looked at him had completely crumbled at this point, and I did anything I could to provide some human comfort and support as we travelled together for another 30 minutes or so.
So listening to the stories others tell about themselves can also provide a lot of information. They show what is important to that person, and their perspective on things. They can fill in some of the ‘holes’ in the narrative you have made up for that person.
Controlling your story
If the story and narratives we infer or indeed make up in our heads about others is important, the story we tell ourselves about our own actions, emotions, thoughts and behaviours is no less important. There is a lot of discussion about how much control we have over this narrative, and what we can do to change it. There is no question that the story we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.
Research suggests we can change our personal narrative, and that this can have a big effect on our lives. William James, the American philosopher and psychologist (and brother of Henry James) was a sickly child, who in his late twenties had a ‘crisis’ where he considered suicide as an option. He decided instead to believe that he had ‘free will’, rather than ‘determinism’, which was popular at the time (the theory that everything that happens, has to happen – thus we have no real ‘free will’). He practised this every day (and wrote in his diary about it), and his life changed – he got married, he started teaching at Harvard, and developed many seminal theories in psychology.
He wrote later in his career that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. If you believe in change – the change becomes real. Thus, if we change our narrative about the world around us, we can do extraordinary things.
I think if someone else was reading my life as a storybook novel, there might well have been some moments when they were shouting at me. When, if reading back over the story of my own life, perhaps I might shout equally strongly.
On the other hand, some of my narrative is really useful. One tenet of my personal philosophy is to attempt to live a life free of regret. It seems such a frustrating and pointless emotion. Don’t read me wrong here – I believe strongly in learning from our past, but I also think we always try to make the best decision that we can in the circumstances, and so looking back and wishing it wasn’t so, when it is, is a waste of time and energy. Even when someone else makes a decision that affects me negatively (although this is harder), I try not to waste my time on regret, and to rather just get on with things. It’s a sort of pragmatic courage. That narrative has helped me lots of times in situations where I could have wasted time on this emotion.
Writing the ending too early
After my post Vignettes, a post of short snapshot stories which were only a paragraph long, reactions included a lot of curiosity about the ending (or the beginning), who was involved in the story, when it happened, what prompted it, and particularly, what happened next. We don’t like it when our stories don’t have a satisfactory ending. But the challenge with this is sometimes we can write the ending too early, before it has even happened.
And when we do this, write the ending based on our ‘life narrative’ rather than letting it unfold or making active choices, we can cut off some amazing options. This resonates with me a lot at the moment. I’ve found it really hard to keep saying to people, when they ask (a lot):
“So what are your plans once you come back to the UK?”
My current response is therefore:
“I’m not really sure at the moment, it depends how the next few months or so unfold.”
Which all makes me realise, when I think of my life as a storybook novel – I’m not ready to write the ending to this chapter yet.
What story do you tell yourself or others about yourself? What would happen if you told a different story about yourself? Have you ever changed your ‘story’ before? What happened? I’d love you to share it in the comments below.