The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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