The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Today I took the plunge. Not as in Polar Bear Club or anything that hearty or insane. I took the plunge into Freedom, the novel by Jonathan Franzen that earned its author a Time Magazine cover last year.

Freedom is not the subject of this post however; it was the catalyst that spun me off on a series of reflections that have fascinated for a very long time – the stories we tell ourselves, how they drive our actions, and how they may or may not be adequate.

Freedom begins by telling us that the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund are going to implode.  It then presents as brilliant a character portrait (of Patty) as I recall in any book. Patty is the Volvo driving, cloth diaper using, natural food choosing, urban renewing, athletic young mom who is “already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.” She is “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee,” and the implication is, none of that is enough.

Last year, David R. Loy published,The World is Made of Stories, a short book of quotations and reflections that underline the simultaneous truth and falsehood of the stories we tell, from a Buddhist perspective.

In his preface, Loy says, “The foundational story we tell and retell is the self, supposedly separate and substantial yet composed of the stories “I” identify with and attempt to live. Different stories have different consequences.”

Do they ever!  What stories did your parents and peers and teachers tell about you when you were young?  “He’s the smart one.”  “She’s the pretty one.”  “He’s always getting into trouble.”  How many of these stories are we still telling ourselves, and how many thousands of stories have we heard since then, from TV, from bosses, coworkers, family, churches, strangers, and unknown parts of ourselves?

We need our stories.  One of the more poignant things my father said during the course of a long degenerative illness was, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing now.”

We need stories to tell us who we are and what we’re “supposed” to do, and at the same time we need to take them with a grain of salt.  Ideally, we need a way to step out of our stories, they way we step out of work clothes at the end of the day to put on a pair of cutoffs or comfy sweats.  The moments when we are outside our stories are the ones we remember the longest.

Whatever events occasion it – a sunset, meditation, playing with a puppy or a child, making love, sports, creative work, music, a good book or movie – the moments when we leave the stories of ourselves behind, are the ones when we are most alive and most truly ourselves.

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