The Stories We Tell

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"Speaking isn't neutral. Every time we speak, we bring forth reality...If the realities we inhabit are brought forth in the language we use, they are kept alive and passed along in the stories we tell." -Jill Friedam and Gene Combs, Narrative Therapists

Like many children on Halloween, after my brother and I were done dashing around the neighborhood collecting candy, we came home and set about the business of sorting our loot into like piles. I found the sorting both fun and practical. I could take stock of my larder (low value Baby Ruths on one end with top dollar Reese Cups on the other), which allowed me to bask in my accomplishment and be more efficient in my trading. This my grownup candy pile. The collection process has been lengthy and is ongoing, and the sorting process has been fun, practical and very healing. 

Apophenia (a term coined in the 1950s) is "the unmotivated seeing of connections"--an idea that speaks to a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information. Being apophenities (a term coined just now) goes along hand-in-hand with being story telling creatures. Indeed, our life stories are really the ultimate expression of our ability to layer meaning onto random events.  

Joseph Campbell is the godfather of seeing patterns in stories. His book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces outlines the Hero's Journey, "a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the worlds mythic traditions." Campbell's study of myths spanning throughout the ages and across the globe, resulted in his outlining of the phases of the Hero's Journey (both the outer and inner), which are shown in the graphic above. The universality of this theme speaks to the idea that at our core--we are the same. When you strip away the names and the scenery and the details and the nuance--you get down to the reality that we just keep telling the same story over and over again. The bad news, for those of us who like to imagine that we are deeply original, is that we are in fact deeply unoriginal in the grand scheme of things. The good news is we can stop worrying about making the next big contribution, and instead can recognize and celebrate that we are most likely adding a new flavor to an already existing product, which makes us co-creators with the rest of the human race as opposed to rarified gurus. 

Brene Brown's most recently published book, Rising Strong, comes on the heels of her books which focus on the importance of cultivating vulnerability in our lives. In Rising Strong Brown talks about the inevitable falls that will accompany living wholeheartedly, and she explains that the choices we make when we are "face down in the arena" about rising back up are as life defining as our initial choice to open to the world. The parallels between Brown's "Rising Strong Process" and Campbell's Hero's Journey are striking and in fact explicit. Her process includes three broad steps: 1) The Reckoning--walking into our story, "where we recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave." 2) The Rumble--owning our story, where we "get honest about the stories we are making up about our struggle, then challenge these confabulations and assumptions to determine what's truth, what's self protection, and what needs to change if we want to lead more wholehearted lives." 3) The Revolution--writing a new ending to our story, which we do "based on key learnings from our rumble. [We] use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent and lead." Brown's steps in turn, pair nicely with Byron Katie's Thought Inquiry Process, which is a practical way to navigate the Reckoning, Rumble and Revolution recipe. 

Story telling serves many functions in our lives. The two functions that have stood out in the sharpest relief as I've squirreled away "collective wisdom" are: a tool that breathes meaning and connection into our past life events and a tool that helps us chart a different future.

As important as stories are, they are not implicitly helpful. They can be powerful meaning makers, but they can also keep us trapped in cutting narratives that swirl around in our heads. The ability to discern which stories serve you and which do not is an art. Brene Brown and Byron Katie offer a toolbox for this kind of examination, and Joseph Campbell shows the scaffolding of this journey that we humans have been experiencing since our inception. To use Campbell's language--it is helpful to be able to look back on an 'ordeal' in your life and see it as a gateway to your own 'resurrection.' Likewise, it is useful to know when to pause and take a good hard look at the thoughts we so often mistake as reality and ask, as Byron Katie encourages us to, "Is it true?" And, if in fact, it is not true, then the soul searching work of letting go of an old story, and adopting a new story, begins.