Part of a series, this essay explores a subheading from Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.
Everything Is a Story
Note your immediate response to this premise. Is it, ‘What do you mean — please explain?’ or, ‘Bullshit…?’ or ‘Du-uh, tell me something I don’t already know?’ Perhaps it’s ‘Thank you for confirming what I was beginning to see?’ Is it something else entirely? Whatever it is fine — it’s your story about the suggestion that everything is a story. Consider that if your response was in the general area of Bullshit.
The cultural givens handed down by our parents and earliest communities and experiences are stories. As (or if) we grow up, wake up, clean up, and show up, some stories hold up and some don’t. Sometimes the givens that don’t hold up were false when we received them and sometimes they were true — as far as anyone knew at the time — but the larger, always evolving community of truth learned more and disproved them when new evidence was found.¹ Doctors no longer recommend smoking cigarettes as a way to relax. Planet Earth is no longer considered the center of the universe.
The stories we choose to believe and tell, as well as the stories that choose us, are powerful. Being in the position to choose our stories and not be chosen by them carries power. Mary Catherine Bateson encourages us to exercise this power:
“…think about the creative responsibility involved in the fact that there are different ways to tell your stories. It’s not that one is true and another is not true. It’s a matter of emphasis and context…. The choice you make affects what you can do next.”²
So, let’s be thoughtful about the stories we choose to tell about who we (think we — and they) are. The choices we make and the stories we tell matter.
Consider the specific stories that inform(ed) your cultural givens. What holds up? What’s the most recent revision you’ve made, or that was made for you, where revision actually means re-vision — to see again? Look at the sweeping revisions, many ongoing, in the earlier essays in this series, and the specific, personal revisions shared therein, such as Robert McNamara’s ‘re-visioned’ view that owned the extent to which he and the other architects of the Vietnam war misjudged, underestimated, failed, and did not recognize a long list of people and ideas.
Such seeing again is never easy and always valuable when it moves the seer toward a more comprehensive, inclusive view. Malcolm X’s life stands as an exemplar of re-visioning. Two of his major re-visions — becoming a Muslim and joining the Nation of Islam while in prison and then leaving the Nation of Islam while remaining a Muslim after his 1964 Hajj — follow the developmental trajectory from a focus on me to a focus on us to a focus on all of us. In each case he changed his name and publicly recognized and owned his seeing again.³
How we tell our stories is as important as which stories we tell. Focus only on what’s wrong and get an “illness” story. Open up to the possibilities of moving through and beyond what’s wrong and tell or write a “healing” story. Adults model both of these for children: if the child who falls down the stairs and breaks an arm is confronted with parental overwhelm, blame, anger, and fear, an illness story emerges in which stairs are dangerous and the child is careless or clumsy; if the child is met with parental support, concern, acceptance, understanding, and love, a healing story emerges in which accidents can happen, stairs are useful and fine and best engaged with care, and the child is curious and open to experience.
Illness stories limit us, narrowly focus on a sense of wrongness, keep us stuck, and can reinforce trauma; healing stories open up the context in which we understand what happened (wrongness may be relevant, but not primary), they can expand and free us, and they can contribute to trauma recovery. Because they focus on what’s wrong, illness stories are often tidy, brief, stagnant, partial, and consistent. Because they emerge through and invite increasingly larger contexts, healing stories are often messy, ongoing, progressive, comprehensive, and paradoxical. Explore your stories. Be kind to yourself.
Writing can be engaged as a powerful process⁴ that helps open us up to increasingly larger contexts that allow us to see and feel as others see and feel — to go beneath all the individual differences, see another soul just like ourselves, and at the same time deeply understand and embody those differences. Going one step further, learning to embody and tell or write someone else’s story, both helps us understand the other and often provides clarity into our own narrative.⁵
Finally, if I’m truly playing an infinite game,⁶ some questions may arise at the intersection of “who am I, really?” and “everything is a story.” Try these questions on for size: Without the stories I hold and that hold me, who am I, and what’s true in this moment? Who am I and what does this moment offer without my story/ies? Ram Dass’s channels four and five point toward a prospective answer. John Tarrant, in Bring Me the Rhinoceros, put it this way:
“Everyone knows that some events are just bad and make you sad or angry, and some are good and make you glad. Yet what everyone knows might not be true. For example there might be a certain coercion to the attitude that weddings must be happy, funerals have to be sad. It could prevent you from meeting the moment you are in. What if events don’t have to be anything other than what they are?”⁷
We owe it to ourselves and each other to create and tell our stories with care.
1. See Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Brookings Institution, 2021) for an expansive and passionate exploration of his book’s title and the “community of truth.”
2. Mary Catherine Bateson, “Composing a Life,” Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power of Stories to Transform and Heal. Eds. Charles & Anne Simpkinson, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 42–43.
3. M.S. Handler, “Malcolm Rejects Racist Doctrine,” New York Times, October 4, 1964, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/10/04/archives/malcolm-rejects-racist-doctrine-also-denounces-elijah-as-a.html; Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, (New York: Ballantine, 1992).
4. James Pennebaker has led the way in decades of research that back this up. See his Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, co-authored with John Evans, (2014); and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotions (1990), among others. See also John Fox’s Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, (1997). There are many more resources available.
5. See Marra, Enough with the Talking Points, (2020), 79–82 for more on truly embodying another’s story. For a deeper dive into telling another’s story as if it were our own, see the work of Narrative 4, which uses “story exchange” to help young (and old) people develop empathy. (Some meeting “icebreaker” exercises skim the surface of this experience: two strangers briefly share who they are and then introduce each other to a group — speaking in first-person, as if they are the person they’re introducing. Narrative 4 goes deeper): https://narrative4.com/.
6. Inspired by James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (Free Press-MacMillan, 1986). An infinite game is one in which the goals are to invite everyone to play and to keep the game going. A finite game is one in which the goal is to limit the players, win, and end the game.
7. John Tarrant, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, (Shambhala, 2008/2004), 113.