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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

As I write this, it is late. Normally I would be asleep, but this time I am too wired, too curious, too in the present moment to lose it to the dream state. My parents are in town, staying with me tonight after an ambitious round of seeing doctors, meeting with old friends, gulping pain medicine and fast food, trying to find some semblance of order in traveling back and forth. This isn’t about “cancer” as much as it’s about “life.” Life and choices, and the stories we tell ourselves about all of it.

I’ve been around family a lot lately, acutely aware of the ways in which the sand passes through the hourglass of time and spills into some unknown place, taking pieces of us with it. I’m not sure where those pieces go, what process they undergo on their way to becoming a memory, a fragment of the self held in a time and a place only accessible to the mind and body in the form of remembrance. Invisible, ineffable, yet completely tangible in some mysterious way that defies the logic of hard science.

The stories of a person, a family, a culture, a country — they hold us, bind us in ways which are potentially fruitful or harmful, and give us an identity. Many of the wars and conflicts in this world are about the stories people tell themselves and others, about the ways in which those influence and undermine us, the ways in which they define and defy us.

Where do the memories go? Where does the laughter and pain go? As Tori Amos asks, “Is there a heaven where the screams have gone?”

What happens to the hole in the doughnut when the doughnut is gone? A Zen koan asks, “What was your original face before your parents were born?”

I’m fascinated by this process of where we go, not just after death; I have my own stories about that and honestly they make more sense to me than this does. But where does a life go, and how many people are just surviving or existing, not really living or thriving, and where does that life force go when you aren’t really using it for its intended purpose?

What happens to the essence of you, what some might call your soul or your Buddha nature, if you aren’t mindful of this? Does your whole experience become the essence of a memory, a vapor, a wisp of life caught in the breath of time, just part of another story? Where is the “you” that existed all those years ago? What happened to those hours, those days, those feelings, those experiences?

You cannot physically become seven again, yet you can feel seven again, especially if there are old seven year things unresolved in this mysterious place where things are held. So you can’t be seven again, yet you hold that experience within, and the stories you had then become the story you have now, unless you choose to change it.

The cells in the body have all changed since then, the brain has changed, certain things are less elastic (and certain other parts are decidedly more…um, “fluffy”), certain bones more brittle and yet the truth is that I feel stronger than I did at 20. My hair is a bit silvery in places, reminding me of the way I remember my grandmother looking at about 50, when I thought she was so old. And I must admit that while I feel quite young, my eyes turned 40 this year and are beginning to make that known. So is that the same person or not? How can parts of me feel so young, other parts so timeless, other parts not so much?

Image by Michael Tapp /Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

I’ve been watching a lot of people around me in a grieving process right now, and I am observing with keen interest. It is fascinating to me, the ways in which we all grieve but are often so afraid to, afraid to give into something so visceral, afraid to give into direct experience with that much abandon. Thus the unfelt, unacknowledged emotional experience becomes physical.

Your biography truly does become your biology, this is now proven science. “Heartache” is such a real thing, so are “gut feelings,” as is “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.” Those of you who use expressions such as “pain in the neck” guess where your pain is going to be? We say these things and the body hears and obeys, yet so often we do not listen to the body as it tries to teach us the wisdom contained there. It reminds me of a thing Carl Jung said:

“Until you allow the unconscious to become conscious, it will rise up to you as your life and you will call it your fate.”

I have come to believe this is the essence of the journey, delving into the depths of the soul, the psyche, the hidden rooms of who we are — and who are you, really? You are a treasure house of experiences, of wisdom, a life force so pure and precious that you were given to you to live and love and laugh and cry and enjoy Earth School for the time you are here. Jesus says, “You are the Light of the World.” What are you doing with that Light? And if you are trying to snuff it out in pain or shame or fear, who is doing that? Who are “you,” really? And as you discover and explore that question, are you willing to treat yourself kindly, gently and with love and compassion?

Image by Michael Tapp/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Who are you, and who are you becoming? Are you the same person you were at seven? Well, yes and no. Yes, you probably have the same name. And theoretically you have the same body, but science tells us even that is an incorrect illusion. What is the same? Probably the stories. The memories. The intangible, ineffable qualities that make a life are still there, hopefully with some more wisdom and patience, hopefully with some insight, but probably that insight came as the result of experiences — some pleasant and some not so much. As my father used to say, “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

Buddhists call people magicians because they say our stories create things out of thin air. It’s also true that your compassion, your pain, your sadness, and your joy — these things all exist in a place of the non-physical yet totally tangible places you call your life. So tonight, after spending time with family, after watching the sands pass through the hourglass of time, after listening to the stories of my parents as they talk about the things on their minds, I have tucked them in and they are sleeping soundly. Their stories have become their lives, a lifetime of choices influencing health and the decisions about it, the stories influencing the decisions they make about health, and so on. They have become their stories, and their stories have become them. And so it goes.

Image by Michael Tapp/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

So who are you, and who are you becoming? What stories do you tell yourself about life, death, happiness, what you can allow yourself, the kind of work you can do, how much money you can make, the opportunities available to you. What are the stories you tell yourself about your life? Thoreau pondered this at length and said:

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you think it is. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house.”

I think Henry was onto something here — the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can make it rich or poor, for better or worse, full of compassion or dread, mean or kind, full of life or full of a life-crushing negativity which leads to a deadness of body and soul. The stories we tell ourselves can make the complex simple (aka “poor in spirit”) or the simple overly complex. A full life story probably contains some grief, some twists and turns, some mistakes, and achievements.

And I can only aspire to let go of the stories that no longer serve me or the highest and best good, mindfully and with compassion. I can aspire to release the judgments about good and bad, right or wrong, life or death, all of the dualities held in what I label my experience. And in doing so, I trust all the stories containing my life force somehow blend into a cohesive whole, somehow benefit all beings, are somehow swept into the wispy places where memories go, trusting that like a child blowing bubbles, they are carried away on the breath of giggles.

So tonight, I ponder stories. And I choose to live in a pleasant, thrilling, glorious story of life and all it might contain.

Image by Michael Tapp/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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