I was getting ready to write a post earlier today, when I stopped and realized that I couldn’t remember whether I’d already written a big post in the past about the particular story I wanted to tell. The question could have been easily answer with some searching through my blog, but instead I find myself inspired to explore a different theme: the stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves.
This topic has been coming up a lot for me in the context of family members dealing with depression. In talking to one family member, I noticed that they were frequently retelling particular accounts of negative interactions they’d had with someone in their life in the past, but that those accounts were far more than a recollection of a part hurt. Those tales kept getting retold because they had important defining meaning for this person and how they understood themselves. Even though the story was negative, hurtful, and caused ongoing emotional challenges for the person, it had still become firmly incorporated into this person’s concept of who they are and what their life was going to be like.
I think storytelling is a fascinating human activity. It’s the central way that we make sense of and give meaning to the world around us, as well as a key way that we transmit information to one another. We may tend to think of human meaning-making through story as exemplified in ancient mythology or in religion; but even in this modern scientific era, we still rely on story to tell us who we are and what our role is in the world. We tell stories about what success means, or stories about our core values and how they should be expressed. We tell stories to illustrate how to approach a problem and to celebrate important milestones. We tell stories to define the relationship between ourselves and whoever is considered “the other.”
Trying to remember if I’d blogged that story before made me pause to think about what my defining stories are. I realized that part of the reason I tell that particular story over and over to people is because I’m trying to commemorate this epiphany I had a while back about love and relationships, and trying to keep the lessons from that moment fresh in my mind. I definitely tell myself other stories that aren’t so positive and healing; I could empathize with my family member’s negative storytelling because I do the same thing all the time when I am depressed. And even though I was talking to my family member about rejecting the negative stories that they’d been caring with then for so long, I have to admit that I’m terrible at taking my own advice.
I wonder how I would construct a new story for myself. I don’t mean in the sense of making things up; I can’t change the past, and I’m not entirely sure I would if I could, since I’m not sure I could accurately identify which things made me into the parts of me I like and which things resulted in the parts I don’t like. Life isn’t always that clear cut and obvious. But there are ways that I might be able to put new spin on some of the events I retell, and give them different meanings. What if my stories about my past relationships weren’t about what I missed our lost or how I failed, but rather what I learned and how it changed and deepened my understanding of what’s important in a lifelong partnership? Those learnings were a real and true part of those experiences; I just tend to focus on the painful parts that make me feel bad.
The challenge is that the current meanings of my stories are deeply embedded, almost cherished in a way. I hold on to them, and it’s hard to think about shifting to something new. Before I can make that shift, I think I have to acknowledge the purpose my particular stories are serving for me, even the negative, hurtful ones. Many times, those negative stories are a way of trying to keep from getting my hopes up, to buffer myself against disappointment. It’s true they don’t work particularly well at keeping me from being sad, but somehow I feel like I would be even more sad if I’d been unreservedly hopeful. If I don’t come up with stories explaining why I’m not worthy of being loved, then how on earth do I deal with being 37 and unmarried and excruciatingly lonely some days? I want some reason for that situation to exist, and even an awful one feels better than just being bewildered on top of being alone. I need some way to make that make sense, and “that’s just how it happened” is not enough.
I’m afraid that new stories will leave me unprotected from the hard things in the world – even as I admit that my current defenses are inadequate. I think there is another way to make sense of these situations – one that is God-centered, full of love and abundance – but I don’t quite know how to get there yet. I think I’ve experienced that kind of story transformation already in my life (for instance, in the ways I now approach my depression), but I have a hard time translating those past experiences into a belief that new stories on other fronts will also serve me well. Still, at least I remain aware that there’s the possibility of doing something differently; and isn’t knowing half the battle?