Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

3.23.2013

I Am My Stories

Or, If You Want to Change Your Perspective, Mood, Habits, and Outcomes, Figure Out What Stories You Are Telling Yourself and Create New Ones to Replace Them

"I know what I saw.  It was real.  It was true.":



People can't just give up a story. . . . you can't just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in. 

-----

 . . . I'm telling you this because the people of your culture are in much the same situation. Like the people of Nazi Germany, they are the captives of a story. . . .

[You've heard of no such story] because there's no need to hear of it. There's no need to name it or discuss it. Every one of you knows it by heart by the time you're six or seven. Black and white, male and female, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, American and Russian, Norwegian and Chinese, you all hear it. And you hear it incessantly, because every medium of propaganda, every medium of education pours it out incessantly. And hearing it incessantly, you don't listen to it. There's no need to listen to it. It's always there humming away in the background, so there's no need to attend to it at all. In fact, you'll find--at least initially--that it's hard to attend to it. It's like the humming of a distant motor that never stops; it becomes a sound that's no longer heard at all.

More fully quoted, with more context and the source, in "More Book Quotes."
I've written many times on this blog about the idea of stories and their power to shape us, most often in relation to books, fiction, and my work as a librarian.  Also, less explicitly, about politics and the political, social, economic, and cultural stories we tell ourselves, advocating my preferred ones in place of others I see as damaging.  And, every so often, I'll tell you some of the stories I tell myself about myself.  Because I believe we innately define ourselves with stories--that we can't not do so, in fact.  We think in stories.

I'm revisiting the topic today (with references to previous posts because they are part of my story as blogger Degolar) because I've been thinking about some of the articles, quotes, and videos that have been shared with me recently (on Facebook and other places) in terms of stories.  So this post (as you've already seen) will be a collection of bits and pieces of many different sources brought together under a common theme.

I recently shared an article in "The Difference Between the Pursuit of Meaning and the Pursuit of Happiness in Life" that focused on the idea that people find meaning and satisfaction in defining themselves as part of something greater.  The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self."  I was thinking about that as I read this article the other day:
The Stories That Bind Us

What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy? . . .

A surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative. . . .

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” . . .

The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness. . . .

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative . . .

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about. . . .

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.
Also on the topic of resilient children is this next article.  It's not so explicitly about the idea of stories, but with its advice about how to talk to your children what it's really advising is what stories you should teach your children to tell about themselves.  This is a new study, but I've read these same conclusions many times before.
Babies Whose Efforts Are Praised Become More Motivated Kids, Say Stanford Researchers

We think our babies are so smart, so amazing, so good. But please, say Stanford researchers, don't tell them that.

"It's better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing. 'You worked hard on that' versus 'you're so good at that,' " says Stanford psychology Professor Carol S. Dweck.

In a new study, Dweck, with graduate students Sarah Gripshover and Carissa Romero, found that the kind of praise parents give their babies and toddlers influences the child's motivation later on. It also plays a role in children's beliefs about themselves and their  desire to take on challenges five years later. . . .

Toddlers who had heard praise commending their efforts were more likely as older children to prefer challenges than those who heard praise directed at them personally, the study found.

"'You're great, you're amazing' – that is not helpful," Dweck said. "Because later on, when they don't get it right or don't do it perfectly, they'll think they aren't so great or amazing."

Toddlers who heard praise directed at actions also were more likely to believe later on that abilities and behavior could change and develop.

"What we found was that the greater proportion of process praise, the more likely the child was to have a mindset five years later that welcomed challenges and that represented traits as malleable, not a label you were stuck with," Dweck said. . . .
So two things that parents can do for their children is help them become part of greater narratives that give them larger identities and teach them to tell stories about themselves that communicate they can influence their fates with effort and work.

One thing I've learned without a doubt is that we learn these stories about ourselves from others, as the expectations they project onto us.  I've seen self-fulfilling prophecies come true so many times.  One of the best lessons was when I was working as a school librarian.  I'd see the same class of students come in with different teachers and have entirely different personalities.  With one teacher they'd be hard working, productive, and respectful; with another they'd be wild, lazy, and out of control.  They were the same students in the same library with the same librarian, yet they seemed to be entirely different people.  The only difference was the expectations of the teachers--the stories they told about themselves, about who they were and how they should behave, based on what was communicated by their teachers.

In saying that, it's important to remember that communication is much more than what is explicitly said, since that can be easily undermined by actions, examples, and inconsistencies.  Stories are subtle and run much deeper than simple intents and pithy sayings--which is why they are so powerful.  Our efforts at implementing good ideas and making positive change fail as often as not because we don't see the depth of the narratives and create counter-stories that are equally powerful.

One area of example is the countless articles, books, and pieces of advice saying things like "happiness is a choice" and "you can choose your attitude."  So often they imply the key is denying and repressing any kind of negative emotion, which just doesn't work because emotions happen and we have to deal with them.  But if we can find ways to tell stories about ourselves that have us dealing positively with those negative emotions, that become part of our identities in genuine ways, then articles like 22 Things Happy People Do Differently can be helpful instead of trite.  Most of these 22 points can be reframed in terms of self-narratives: "Express gratitude for what they already have," for instance, could be stated as, "Tell themselves they already have many things to be grateful for and focus on those parts of their histories."  "Happy people have the ability to choose their own destinies" is basically the same idea as the article above about praising children for effort.  Many of the other 22 things could be seen as learning to appreciate the stories others tell about themselves and avoiding the influence of those who make our stories more destructive.

The power of story is what Eric finally comes to understand at the end of The Bully Book (follow link for my in-depth review and explanation)--that he was chosen to be "The Grunt" that the class would pick on because he didn't have any strong defining characteristics or interests--his story was less "defined" than anyone else in the class--so the class bully could most easily wipe away Eric's existing story and replace it with a narrative that saw him as the butt of everyone's jokes.  If he wants to change his status, he must learn not to accept the bully's story and replace it with one of his own, one powerful enough that sticks in everyone's consciousness.

That's the new material.  But to give it deeper context, I want to revisit some things I've shared previously in other posts.  From one of the big ones that started this vein of my writing, "Fiction Is as Essential Nonfiction," quotes from two different sources:
When human beings tell themselves as a story, they do so by arranging recalled events into some sort of plot. Designing a plot is an act of interpretation and, therefore, involves a particular reading of meanings, values, causalities, and so forth. Of course, the material selected (or omitted), the significance accorded particular happenings, and the "genre" of the story may well be determined by immediate self-assessment, for example, "I am a secret unsung genius," "I am a chronic impotent," "I am a healthy all-American winner." Human beings do tell themselves (and others) life stories and, through such stories, search personal meaning.

Now all the stories we are told come together and, along with our own mnemonic story line, become in consciousness "Our Story." Stories arrange past to present (although they may be entered at different points or be rearranged in recall), and end up with us where we are. Thus stories conjoin in consciousness to tell us who we are and where we are in the world: Stories give identity. . . . Words may name the world, but narrative consciousness tells us who we are and where in the world. Story confers identity.
And:
We live our narratives. The lived story is at the center of modern personality theory. The theory of neural computation, as we shall see later, shows how our brains not only permit this, but favor it. The typical roles played in narratives include Hero, Victim, and Helper. A doctor may not just be a doctor, but a Hero-doctor, saving people's lives. A housewife may see herself as a Victim-housewife, victimized by society's sexism. A nurse may see herself as the Helper to the Hero-doctor. Or as a Victim of Sexism in medicine. A president may see himself as a Hero rescuing a Victim-nation from a Villain-dictator. Or as leading a Battle of Good Against Evil. The roles in narratives that you understand yourself fitting give meanings to your life, including the emotional color that is inherent in narrative structures.

The very fact that we recognize these cultural narratives and frames means that they are instantiated physically in our brains. We are not born with them, but we start growing them soon, and as we acquire the deep narratives, our synapses change and become fixed. A large number of deep narratives can be activated together. We cannot understand other people without such cultural narratives. But more important, we cannot understand ourselves--who we are, who we have been, and where we want to go--without recognizing and seeing how we fit into cultural narratives.
We can't change our self stories until we can see and understand them, along with the larger cultural and societal stories that are our contexts, and until we can see the stories of others to give us different perspectives from which to retell our own.  More on that in "What Is Your Perspective (Part II): Or, AND (not OR)."

Finally, from "There's Not One Truth Ever, Just a Whole Bunch of Stories":
“Doesn’t matter what anyone else would call it, Len,” he says. “This is our story to tell.”This is our story to tell. He says it in his Ten Commandments way and it hits me that way: profoundly. You’d think for all the reading I do, I would have thought about this before, but I haven’t. I’ve never once thought about the interpretative, the storytelling aspect of life, of my life. I always felt like I was in a story, yes, but not like I was the author of it, or like I had any say in its telling whatsoever.

You can tell your story any way you damn well please.

---

And it’s just dawned on me that I might be the author of my own story, but so is everyone else the author of their own stories, and sometimes, like now, there’s no overlap.

---

Life’s a freaking mess. In fact, I’m going to tell Sarah we need to start a new philosophical movement: messessentialism instead of existentialism: For those who revel in the essential mess that is life. Because Gram’s right, there’s not one truth ever, just a whole bunch of stories, all going on at once, in our heads, in our hearts, all getting in the way of each other. It’s all a beautiful calamitous mess.

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