The stories we choose.

pencilI just got back from a walk (a thing I have almost literally [in the literal sense of “literally”] not been able to do for the better part of six weeks) and here is what I found myself thinking about: The narratives we construct about ourselves and our lives.

When we think about our past, our family, the day through which we are currently muddling, we always make choices about the narrative. Maybe our ancestors came from eight different places, but our family keeps the traditions of one. Maybe we remember our success (or failure) in one year of school more than the others. Maybe I tripped and fell, but the people who helped me were so kind — do I talk about (think about) my sense of humiliation, the blood on my knee, or the kindness?

The choices that we make have an impact that is literally incalculable (because who’s ever going to figure out a way to calculate that?) on our lives. How I choose to remember my grandmother — the parts I hold on to, as well as the parts I allow to fall away — have a daily impact on how I think of myself, how I use my time, how I talk to my kids (and again, I mean that quite literally. Anyone who knew my grandmothers will know what I mean).

I don’t believe, as many self-help guides would suggest, that we necessarily choose our suffering. First of all, if (for instance) you’re living in chronic, generational poverty and can’t get your clinical depression treated, you haven’t chosen your suffering. But there’s a lot else that we don’t choose. My father died when I was a baby, for example, and my family has had alcoholism wash through it in waves for generations — the suffering those facts have caused me is real. That suffering is a fact, not a choice. There is no way that I can “choose” any of that away. I also can’t choose to upend social stigma or expectations, or decades of socialization, or, I don’t know, natural disasters. Or the government shutdown. Attitude can only take you so far.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a force. What narrative do I want? Even if I can’t upend social stigma — do I at least want to know that I tried? How do I deal, at age 49, with the loss of my father in way that is meaningful? How do I focus on kindness, rather than on bloody knees? The knee won’t un-bloody. But I want the kindness to matter, too.

A big part of why I’ve had so little time over the past two months is because I’ve been teaching a course on politics and the mass media, and the idea of “framing” the news is one we’ve talked a lot about. Though I’m not a huge fan of our text, one line leapt off the page and has remained lodged in my brain: “We live in terms of the stories we tell.”

The text goes on to say “We live in terms of the stories we tell, stories about what things exist, stories about how things work, and stories about what to do” — and that is all true, but unnecessary. It’s all right there in the first nine words. We live in terms of the stories we tell.

What stories do I want to spend my life telling?



  1. 1) I have often thought that the whole “choose your suffering” narrative is overwrought. Life is such a complex and intricate system of exchanges of information, such a deep and abiding river of energy, that twists and swirls in such an incalculable fashion, that to say we “choose” anything much beyond the surface of our skin is probably hubris. You are born into circumstances beyond your control, at a place in space & time that exists because of the nigh infinite interactions that occurred before your birth. Each moment after that is a summation of the continual flux of activity that reaches out beyond you into the cold depths of space. All you basically choose is how you will react at any particular moment to any particular stimulus, and much of that is primed by genetics, previous interactions, and conditioning. We are swimmers in the river of time, fighting the current, riding the waves, clinging to the hope of a nearing and pleasant shore.

    2) The stories we write — or attempt to — threaten to swallow us. Think of the myriad things that happen to us in even one day; multiply that out over a typical human lifespan and you sense that no narrative you or I create can be anything but the shallowest, sparest story of what we truly are. We are icebergs, so much of us hidden from view, so much even hidden from ourselves behind the skittering, jumbled neural curtains of the dark recesses of our minds. Psychology tells us that even people with the most powerful minds and sharpest faculties will fail to see things as they are or remember things as they were with perfect fidelity.

    So the story we write of ourselves is but the summation of drawn breaths and accessible thoughts. But it isn’t really just our story, for we are simply a part of an unbroken chain that reaches back through the eons. Out story is folded into a larger narrative and it adds to (or subtracts from) that. Ours is but another chapter in a book as old as time and we can only hope that in the future, someone will chance upon it, perhaps drawing strength from it. So tell posterity what it needs to know.

  2. Reblogged this on Reaching Out.

  3. Thank you. Definitely something to think more deeply about. My first thought is about the topics I choose to write about on my blog. Like all bloggers I make a decision to write about This and not about That. Sometimes it is based on privacy issues, but often it is because it is the story that I choose to tell. It’s my blog and I choose to talk about things in my head that may not get an airing in my Off Blog World. But those, of course, are quite conscious decisions, and you are talking about unconscious ones. That is what I will ponder on some more.