Intro: Stories are our lives in language! There is nothing that comes more natural in human communication than to tell a story or recap an event that has taken place in our lives. In fact, it is so natural and happens so often that we are usually completely unaware that we are doing it. If it’s lunch time for you, you’ve probably already told 3 or 4 stories this morning. But have you ever stopped to think about their power? Stories are either the source of our super powers, or our kryptonite!
Welcome to the Love Your Story podcast. I’m Lori Lee, and I’m excited for our future together of telling stories, evaluating our own stories, and lifting ourselves and others to greater places because of our control over our stories. This podcast is about empowerment and giving you, the listener, ideas to work with in making your stories work for you. Power serves you best when you know how to use it.
Body: the beginning of time and recorded history stories have been the means humans used to informally share experiences, beliefs, identities and ideologies. It doesn’t matter the culture, the country or the belief system, we are all united by STORY!
During my master’s research, in the field of folklore, I studied the personal narratives of hikers, bikers, skiers, rock climbers…you get the idea. The things I found, like how we use stories to build our reputations (for example, when one tells a story about riding their mountain bike along a knife-edge mountain trail, they are inadvertently sharing that they are skilled mountain biker) to share awe (such as a retelling of falling asleep under a dark night sky, untouched by light pollution and the billions of stars that become visible in that space), to inspire (such as a story of persevering through a difficult snowstorm), to define ourselves, to keep ourselves in a cage, to make sense of events…the list goes on and on. These peaked my interest because it was fascinating to discover the multitude of things that we subconsciously use story for. The sheer depth of ways we automatically use story to define our very lives, our self percerception, the world around us. As I started working on my PhD dissertation research proposal, I found a new angle that peaked my interest, namely I wanted to research the difference between how we expected our lives to turn out vs. how different they usually turn out. I found in my research an understanding of how our families, genders, cultures, race, economic status, sexual experience and preference, education, etc. set those expectations for each of us. Which then went on to highlight how our life expectation and the acceptability of our stories are created by a set of imposed laws that are created by our environment. Do you realize what this means? This means that the very stories that define ourselves to ourselves are actually created from a set of criteria that is completely arbitrary and depends upon where you were born and what that culture defined for you. In one culture you may be considered a goddess of perfect living, in a different culture you might be considered an outcast. And yet, there you are, the exact same person. Should our perceptions of personal value and acceptability be taken seriously in the big pictures?
As is true with most higher education research, we seek answers to things that puzzle us, things we want to make our own peace with, things we want to understand. This was no different for me. I was interested in how other’s expected their lives to turn out, and if it met their expectations because my life had not turned out as I planned or expected. Born into a family and culture with a prized family ethic, my three divorces have been a source of shame and failure for me. Try dating and telling someone you’ve been divorced 3 times. It never bodes well. I usually tell them 7 times, so that, “No really just 3.” It makes it seem better. I knew I was a good person, despite these horrible experiences that had caused me so much heart-wrenching pain over the years, but it was so far from what I planned, and I had gender expectations, religious expectations, family and cultural expectations that I had not lived up to. So, studying this topic was personal for me. How do we find peace with our stories, because they ARE our stories? the only ones we have – and WE GET TO WRITE them. As I studied I learned fascinating things about story. One of the largest discoveries was realizing there is no hard and fast truth to an event. –Depending upon whose perspective you looked at an event at, the story would be different because of the vastly different lenses that we all look through. Not only is there variety in what our families expect from us, but also in what are religions expect from us, and what we are expected to do if we are male vs. female. What if we are born into money – the way we view life will be vastly different than for those who have lived on minimum wage or struggled for their next meal. All these lenses – and we each have a different set – color everything we see.
These understandings began to make me uncomfortable — the idea that first-person accounts could often not be counted on opened a lot of doors for reality checks. As I did more research into the research others had done on the topic, I found academics in psychology, in folklore, in social sciences, etc. acknowledging the control we have in creating our own stories, I noted the concerns of the legal system regarding such things as the reliability of first-person testimony in court, even the research my thesis professor did on how the mind, over time, can believe that we were in certain places or experienced certain things that we did not, if we hear the story or tell the story often enough. As an example of this – my professor, Lynne McNeill at Utah State University, told a story in her paper, “It Happened to Me: Motivating the shift from third to first person perspectives in legends and Personal Narratives” of when she was a young girl and she was babysitting. Uncomfortable with answering the door in an unfamiliar home for which she was responsible, stranger danger was a nerve racking part of the babysitting adventure. One night the doorbell rang and she could see there was more than one person out there. She was really stressed, but she opened the door a little and right in front of her, at eye level, was this picture. They were holding a magazine open to the center spread and she just stood there frozen staring at what she calls a “bizarre picture of green rolling hills and a kid playing with a panda.” It was the Jehovah’s Witnesses proselyting with their WatchTower magazine.
Well, years later she heard her friend tell the story, only when her friend told it, her friend was telling it as if it had happened to her. How was it possible that they both had memories of it happening to them?. Being an open-minded thinker, my professor realized that there was nothing to prove that she wasn’t the one who had created the memory vs. her friend being the one who created it. Had it really been her experience, or had it been her friends? Both swore it was their own.
The plasticity of memory is an uncomfortable idea at best. How many people have created memories of things that never happened, or saw things happen to someone else, or in a movie, and over time adopted those memories as their own? To most people, the idea seems ludicrous. Maybe something only an unstable mind might wander to, but research shows it’s quite real.
So aside from the terrifying idea that the realities and stories we remember are a fluid, ever-changing thing as our perspectives and motives (We’ll talk more about this in future episodes) change, and the fact that some memories can even just be created, the over-arching issue here is that story is not fact. The story of my divorces is told from my perspective. I can focus my story on the good things that each man brought in to my life. I can focus my story on the horrible betrayals and heart-wrenching events, I can focus my story the every popular “victim” mindset or I can focus my story on what I learned—there are a lot of angles I can choose to take with any story. The question I need to ask is: Which one serves me best? Which perception of your stories serves YOU best?
Tears streamed down my cheeks, but the sun had set and my fellow workshop attendees were caught up in their own social circles as our break commenced on the sidewalk outside the Columbus Convention Center. I was completely unconcerned about my show of emotion because the whole group had been through so many emotional experiences that someone crying was hardly new or interesting. The dark of the evening closing in around us cooled the hot sidewalk, and the warm summer air was downright delicious after the rampant AC in the conference hall. The hot brick of the building, heated by the sun during the long day, warmed by back as I sat, knees up, head back, against the wall.
“What’s up?” a voice said, and I looked up to see my workshop “buddy” looking down at me. Since the past days had been filled with tears and vulnerability as everyone worked to uncover buried pains that had too long lodged in our psyches, I simply looked up at him and said, “I don’t know how to not be a victim.” I didn’t spend a lot of time explaining how I don’t spend time thinking about past grievances and injustices. I’m not the type of person who goes around complaining about how unfair life is, in fact I felt I was pretty well adjusted to the things that had happened in my life, but at the same time there is no doubt that my failed relationships, disloyal friends, deaths and cruel people I had crossed paths with had been key in forming who I was and how I saw my life. “I didn’t ask for any of this,” I said to him, “so how am I not supposed to feel victimized when crappy painful things happen to me due to other people’s choices?”
He spent no time placating me either and simply said, “Let’s reframe it.”
“How would you reframe it?” I challenged, my voice tired. “What other way is there to see it? I’ve spent the last 20 years or more with rampant heart break over things other people brought into my life. How do you make that look good?”
“Here’s what I see,” he said. “Everyone who cheated on you, misbehaved, lied, broke your trust, abandoned you, abused you and stabbed you in the back has been extracted from your life. This is their loss–they don’t get to be a part of your life anymore. On top of that, all your experiences have allowed you to become the strong woman that you are now. They have given you an understanding that you did not have, empathy that doesn’t come without experience, and understanding that gives you a depth and beauty that only the trees who weather the storm can claim. On top of that, they have provided you the fodder—the emotion and experience—so that you are able to write from a place that can touch other people. And now the past is over and you can close the door on it and get out of your own way as you move into the future you’re supposed to have, using your past life experiences to inform and inspire, but otherwise letting them stay in the past. You are done with them.”
Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing. But that’s what I got out of it. During that 20 minute break, and that five-minute exchange I finally saw this pile of pain, embarrassment, loss, abuse, abandonment, and all the other crappy painful words that described my past to me, in a way that would allow me to move forward. It wasn’t that it would be easy and that all my problems were solved and my issues of trust were gone, but it gave me a space, a reframe that was honest and real and hopeful, and I could work with that. What if everything crappy that had been a part of my life could be repurposed for good? What if I could see, from my current vantage point, purpose in my years of pain and deep disappointment? What if who I am now would not have been possible without walking the path I walked? And what if that mattered very much because who I am now is a woman with some degree of wisdom, understanding, and empathy? What if I wasn’t a victim, but a heroin of my own story? The hero’s journey is fraught with deep challenge, or there would not be a hero. What if I choose to reframe my story and find the magic, the fairy godmothers, the sign at the cross roads when I needed it most, the elf that shows up to share a magic word or a riddle I have to figure out? What if, with a little faith, I could begin to see my story from a bigger picture perspective, not just from the current mud bog I am currently trying to get out of?
What if you could too? In the words of Hans Christian Andersen, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.”
Now I want to be clear. I’m not by any means suggesting that we revamp our stories into lies, rather, we look deeper into our stories to find the deepest truth. If we need to make things right, then we do. If we need to change a way of being, then we do. If we need to acknowledge that a perception is completely false because well-meaning “others” fed it to us, then we do. It’s a serious process that requires strength of character and a real dedication to working through the lies we tell ourselves that do not serve us.
I propose that when we look at our full life stories – our victim stories, the synopsis of our lives, we also have the power to choose our perspective and reframe the tales into stories that build and bless rather than lock us into a box of anger, hate, apathy, or carefully placed armor. On my upcoming podcasts, we’ll get serious and real with these ideas in much more detail. I’ll start breaking down some ideas for you to consider that can help you come to a place where you LOVE YOUR STORY, even if it didn’t turn out as you expected.
I’m going to end every podcast with a challenge. This week I challenge you to think about your life stories, so you come to the table next week with your stories in mind. Maybe even think about them from a number of different perspectives, just to see how the story changes. I know that your story feels like a fact that is unchangeable, but I promise you, there are other ways to see it. Find a way that serves your highest and healthiest purpose.
Have a great week out there sharing your stories and I’ll meet you back here for the next podcast.