The stories we tell ourselves have great power over us. Depending on how they are told, our stories can either enlighten or mislead, inspire or discourage.
A sympathetic narrator casts daily failures as learning experiences, painful yet helpful steps on the way to success.
Hope requires believing in a story that transcends catastrophe, including death itself.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
"Humans are essentially storytellers," writes communication scholar Walter Fisher. I agree; don't you?
It's not that we all can create fiction on a par with William Shakespeare or John Grisham, but all of us do weave our lives into narratives. We tell ourselves stories that explain where we've been and where we're going, who we are and who we're becoming.
We have personal stories (my 1st day of school), family stories (when your mom and I met), societal stories (how a college dropout built MicroSoft), regional stories (the blizzard of '57), national stories (a president born in a log cabin), and religious stories (a shepherd boy who killed a giant).
Similarly, we tell stories of our past (When I was a boy I used to . . .), our present (I'm having a bad day), and our future (Someday I will . . .).
The stories we tell ourselves have great power over us. Depending on how they are told, our stories can either enlighten or mislead, inspire or discourage. Thus, the following suggestions are designed to help us tell our stories well.
Choose an uplifting emphasis.
An honest journalist will tell you that all stories have a slant. It's not that reporters try to mislead (there is such a thing as propaganda, but that's another issue); it's just that in choosing what to cover, some things are always left out or minimized. And that's OK.
So a reporter covering a tornado may give only sparse facts of the property damage and death toll, while embellishing on the bravery of rescue workers and the camaraderie and sacrifice of survivors. Similarly, in our own stories of tragedy, deciding what to highlight can spell the difference between lingering bitterness, guilt, or grief and a sense of closure.
Become a sympathetic narrator.
In literary criticism, a sympathetic narrator is one who takes the side of the story's protagonist or main character. Thus, while Mark Twain is honest about Huckleberry Finn's shortcomings, he never stops pulling for him. Similarly, we need to admit mistakes yet not obsess over them. A sympathetic narrator casts daily failures as learning experiences, painful yet helpful steps on the way to success.
Create a good ending.
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, believed that stories should have good endings. He called them "eucatastrophes." Bad things will happen to good characters, but, in the end, all will be resolved and good will triumph.
For us this means our stories will often need to take on a historical or religious perspective that sees beyond this life or this world. Our personal stories must ultimately be linked to greater, more global stories that bequeath a resolution, relevance and permanence unattainable by our single narratives. Hope requires believing in a story that transcends catastrophe, including death itself.
Be willing to revise.
So if you are saddled with an inordinate amount of guilt (a past story), frustration (a present story), or anxiety (a future story); I recommend doing what all good writers do: revise the story. It will help to write the new one down, and, if you want, send me a copy. Perhaps, I'll have a place for it in a future column.
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