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Posts Tagged ‘stories’

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately.  The stories we read, the stories we watch, the stories we tell others about ourselves, and, the stories we tell ourselves in the privacy of our own minds.  Before you decide that this is just another “change your script” post, I ask that you read a little longer.  I’m not here to tell you that in order to be happy/successful/whatever you need to change your story: that message is already out there for anyone who needs it.

I simply want to remind you of the power of stories in general. Little stories combine to make up bigger stories; my stories join with your stories and your stories join with the stories of other people, all to make up a complex tale of humanity.  Some stories are made up completely from our imagination, some have bits of fact embedded within and others are fully factual.

 We are surrounded by stories everywhere that we look: books, movies, and television may be the most obvious places to find stories, but we find them in the way that children play, in advertising, in the clothes that people wear, the way that shops are laid out and goods are displayed, the way that food is made, prepared, and consumed, and even the way that we drive and the routes we choose to take are all stories (or parts of them).  Our education is full of stories, too, and not just the literature and language courses but all courses: we hear science stories and math stories and history stories and social sciences stories and philosophy stories and…

 You get the idea.  Our lives are filled with stories, and these stories do more than entertain and educate us: they shape us, as do our responses to the stories.  The stories that I tell not only reflect reality, as I perceive it, they help to shape that reality.  When I hear a story, I choose whether or not to accept it as it is, or to change it internally.  If I read a story about a political figure, I can choose to accept it as it is written, disregard it as untrue, or accept that it may have some basis in “reality” as it is collectively defined but that it may not be complete.  In any case, once I make that decision, I then have to decide whether or not I internalize this story and incorporate its message into my own worldview or not.  Whichever I choose, I will most likely make that decision in the blink of an eye and without any input from my waking self.  This is an unobserved, subconscious act on my part, and when I later paraphrase that initial story in a story of my own, I may not remember where those ideas came from.

Part of how we construct our stories is where we choose to focus.  Over time, the area of focus will be determined automatically, based on where we have focused before.  A great way to develop a better understanding of oneself is to shift focus in the middle of an experience.  Let’s say that I am riding the bus, and I fall into the usual habit of focusing on how hot and uncomfortable I am.  If take a moment to shift my focus onto other riders, I will have an entirely different experience than I usually do, and I’ll add depth to my daily routine.  It will provide a perspective that I did not have before, and will pose questions that I might never have asked before.  My perspective can be further broadened if I am able to make the leap from simply focusing on others to imagining myself in their shoes.

 One of the things we need to move beyond is the idea that there is only one way to tell or interpret a particular story.  For instance, I will tell the stories of my youth one way, my mother will tell them another way, my father will tell them a third way, and so on.  And all of these would be “correct,” in that they reflect the perspective and the memory of the person telling it.  There is no single way to tell the story of me, just as there is no single way to tell the story of you.  My story will change over time, and not just because I will add new paragraphs; the earliest threads of the story will be altered as time and experience shift my gaze from one aspect of the story to another.

 One of the ways that my story has changed is by becoming aware of the presence of all of the stories around me.  When I watch a documentary program on television, I am aware not only of the story that is being presented, but also of the stories that the filmmaker chose to not tell but that might have been.  Why this story and not one of the other possible stories?  What other possibilities were there?  In other words, why did the filmmaker point her camera in that direction, and what lies just out of the shot?  If this is a subject of interest to me, the knowledge of stories left untold can lead me to do personal research.  And if I choose to look at life in that way, it reminds me that there are countless angles and directions in which to point my lens.

When I realize that all my thoughts and words and deeds and beliefs are my stories, that gives me control over them.  I can rewrite my stories, if I choose to do so.  If my collected stories make me happy and help me to engage in activities that make other people happy, then it is unlikely that I will refocus my perspective.  Nor would I be expected to, although a shift in focus can always bring in new ideas.  If my stories don’t make me happy, if where I choose to focus my lens brings me pain or grief or anger, than maybe I need to shift my gaze a bit, widen the aperture, and let this new field of vision shape a new set of stories for my life.

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In my continuing observations on death, I’ve been thinking about stuff; namely, about what our stuff says about our lives to those who are left behind.  When a loved one has the task of going through the detritus of my life, what will s/he learn about me?  Will it shock/dismay/offend? Or will it bring a smile/inspire/ignite a memory?

I began pondering this after the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado.  In particular, I wondered about how the parents of the out-of-state college students would cope with finding photos of their children posed with people they don’t know.  I’ve noticed that the college-aged people I know are fond of taking photos of themselves and their friends with the phones, which doesn’t allow for much description.  When that grieving mother opens her child’s laptop and sees her daughter’s smiling face, surrounding by the faces of others, would it help her grief to know how those people mattered to her child?  It seems to me that knowing who those people are and how they fit in her child’s life might bring her closer to the child she can no longer hold.  Knowing her child’s friends might give her insights into her child’s life away from home, insights into the person she was becoming. (note to self: label all my photos!)

When someone dies after a long life, the family assumes there will be few surprises to be found amongst the flotsam and jetsam of that life.  I suppose most of the time that is true, but what about when it isn’t?  How does finding out that grandpa loved something (or someone) that he kept secret affect your memory of him?  What if we discover that grandma had a huge secret that she could never tell anyone?  How would that change the story we carry with us about that person?  We know that diaries and personal letters are private things, but it is common to read the diaries and letters of the deceased.  It helps us to learn more about that person and find connections and memories in the words on the page.  I find the idea of having to keep a part of my life secret, for whatever reason, unbearably sad.  I would be just as sad to find out that a deceased loved one felt that secrecy was necessary in his or her life as well.  I think that just might break my heart.

Then of course there is the stuff that no longer has any meaning but that we simply haven’t let go of yet.  The remnants of childhood, the books we haven’t looked at in years, the debris of a failed relationship.  What story does that tell our survivors about us?  That we can’t let go of what is no longer useful?  Or maybe that we simply haven’t thought about it in so long we’ve forgotten it exists?

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What might someone learn about me if they had to go through all of my stuff?  Assuming my spouse and I died at the same time, a surviving parent or sibling would need to deal with all of the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years.  I like to think that there would be no surprises, that our friends and families know us well enough to know what to expect in that situation.  We certainly don’t all think the same way or believe the same things, but we know that about each other, and it is still possible to love each other and get along with each other while avoiding contentious conversation topics.  I don’t want to cause anyone more grief at my passing based on a discovery that I was too afraid of losing their love to be myself.

What about you?  What story does your stuff tell?  Does it tell your story, or someone else’s?

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