Telling Ourselves Stories

By Sandy Burgham

We all like a good story, it’s hardwired into us. Professor Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book, Sapiens, that the reason homo sapien shot to the top of the food chain was not just our ability to create stories, but to believe in them. Our narratives, shared and personal, are a big part of our identity.

There’s some fascinating reading about narratives — stories — and national identity. American author George Packer postulates that there are currently four competing narrative identities influencing thinking in the US. The ‘libertarian’ framework, with a catch-cry of freedom, cherished by the GOP and celebrating the dynamism of the free market, sits alongside its more progressive cousin, ‘Globalised America’, also called ‘Cosmopolitan America’. That’s the story dominant in Silicon Valley, where it’s breezily assumed that an open and connected world is always better. Then there is the story of ‘Multicultural America’, which sees Americans as members of sub-groups whose status is largely determined by the sins of the past and present, which prohibits the creation of one overall identity. Packer’s fourth group is the narrative of ‘America First’, which courts exclusion rather than inclusion.

Here in NZ, there appears to be a few national narratives going on — think of the ‘we are a young country’ and the ‘100% Pure NZ’ stories. Alongside these I still hear the last vestiges of the ‘egalitarian NZ’ trope, which seems to be morphing into a ‘we do bi-culturalism well’ frame. Each storyline is fraught with inaccuracy and is dependent on the lens you’re looking through.

But it is the domination of any one particular narrative that is the most concerning. A dominant story can easily move from the fiction to non-fiction section of the figurative bookshelf, shutting out diversity of viewpoints.

And personally, we’re no different. While our own narratives provide a stable vantage point from which we develop identity — to help us navigate the world and create values and rituals to share with like-minded groups — the anchoring of a particular view
we have about ourselves can be highly problematic if it becomes dangerously fixed as fact.
In my day job, my collaborators and I are particularly interested in personal reinvention as a core part of leadership development.

In our courses, participants write what we call their ‘first act narrative’ in all its dramatic glory. Because memories are infused with emotion, the stories of our lives are embellished with heroes, villains, dungeons and dragons. But because our brains filter out the excessive detail, the plotlines tend to become very simplistic.

Sometimes we ask participants to name their stories. Titles like ‘Beating the Odds’, ‘Rags to Riches’ or indeed ‘Riches to Rags’ is a way of healthily detaching and looking objectively at our assumptive stories and how they’ve grown over the years. By that, I mean that we make our first act narrative into a mini-series worth watching. We make events mean something and it’s the meaning- making of these stories — which, let’s remember, were constructed out of the drama of our own imaginations — that give a clue as to why so many people feel stuck. I think of a personal story infused with meaning as sort of a director’s cut of a movie. The ego wants the world to know a very specific expression of the story. While things happen to us all, small or significant, it is the meaning we make of them that becomes the roadmap that tends to dictate what path to take, and from there, how we must live.

Think perhaps of a family incident from your first act — childhood, teen, young adult — and how you and your siblings have totally different takes on how it played out. That points to ‘meaning’ as you perceive it actually being a changeable notion.

In our workshops, we become increasingly interested in what detail and sub-plots are left on the editing room floor of those personal, ‘director’s cut’ narratives. We are also interested in how invested the individual is in telling the same version of a life story over and over again, often as an excuse for not moving ahead.

When someone in a coaching session answers a question with a precursor of, “Well, to be really honest”. . . my ears prick up. It shows that there is a deeper level of being, underneath the current pattern. Perhaps the person is becoming a little more aware that they have been simply sticking to a script that they wrote. The idea of becoming self-authored may be an emerging possibility, which is hugely exciting as that is how we can all aim to live happily, if not ever after, sorting fact from fiction and become at peace with our stories, and how they have shaped us.

This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of The Hobson Magazine.