How stories matter

Lovely pic by ©

People think that stories are shaped by people.
In fact, it’s the other way round.  – Terry Pratchett

When Salon@615 hosted Anne Lamott in conversation with author Ann Patchett, Lamott described reading as a form of religion, and said that the day she discovered chapter books was the first time she knew that she was saved. Even today, when Lamott get a new book, she knows that she is safe, moreorless, for as long as the book lasts. And wow, I know what she means.

Back when I began six rounds of chemotherapy, I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning which is Viktor Frankel’s account of his time in the concentration camps during WWII, and his theory of Logotherapy. A theory which states that the last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, which is what Frankel did. In all the horror of the camps, Frankl learnt to comfort himself physically and mentally, by always carrying a scrap of bread in his pocket and, by imagining himself lecturing Logotherapy in America after the war.

Parts of Frankl’s story were so horrendous that I actually forgot where I was until I looked up and saw that I was on a drip in the chemo room. The NHS actually saved me with their wonderful staff and unbearable treatments but Frankl’s story saved me too. Frankl taught me to comfort myself physically with little gifts (I felt too sick to view food as comfort) and mentally with the dream of me lecturing again.

Stories transport us, away from the terrors of our lives and minds. They can also inspire us to take action big or small. Stories can restore our faith in this crazy life by showing us that things can change, nothing bad lasts forever, and when we have to endure, we can find a story to lose ourselves in. Even if it can’t make us feel better about a given situation, it can give us a break – some relief and release from our lives.

In Storytelling and Mythmaking, Frank McConnell says stories save our lives. He says that vicariously living through a hero’s story is the best form of self-help our civilisation has to offer. We learn to be a better version of ourselves inspired by heroes.

McConnell finds heroes in myths and movies from The Iliad to Taxi Driver, and using Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Northrop Frye‘s theories, McConnell outlines our expectations of a good story. Each story has a society, a hero, and a relationship between the two. Each society has rules – some written, some inherent- which our hero either wishes to enforce like a Samurai or a knight, or which make him bitter for he knows these rules are rotten, like the cynical private eye. Sometimes, our hero is a king and will rewrite the rules of society to form a brave new world. But wherever and whenever these heroes are, they experience one of the four seasons of life – the comedy of spring, the romance of summer, the tragedy of autumn, and the winter of irony and satire. These seasons are the cycle of life itself, and our ultimate quest for salvation – the hero’s quest or monomyth.

[N.B. it is the hero’s not heroine’s quest because Campbell said that women were too busy to sit around telling stories(!). We only find women in fairytales or in supporting stereotype roles in McConnell’s movies while men do the self-actualisation. Alas, women have been suppressed by poor plot lines for centuries.]

The monomyth was identified by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who said that when we hear a story we want it to give us a how not a why. We don’t always need to know why something has happened, we just need to know how to deal with it. Like me reading Frankl, he gave me a how to get through chemotherapy which I clung to because anytime I asked why I went a little bit crazy.

But, it is not just non-fiction where we can find a how. Fiction works just as well.

In his Masterclass, James Patterson says that he doesn’t really write realism, he is more interested in creating a great, emotional story. After all, life is often stranger than fiction, and much more unbelievable. Patterson is known as the world’s best selling author because he gets the emotional aspect right. He has been told many times by policemen that his characters feel so right even when the police procedure isn’t. Thanks to this emotional resonance, we trust Patterson’s characters and their stories. Instinctively we know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we can ever explain. We don’t always need a why.

Emotional resonance often feels like truth, which is why when you share a story with someone, they often share one back, rather like Katie Hopkins’s #myfatstory in which she gained weight simply to demonstrate how easy it would be to lose it again. Luckily, she had a moment of vulnerability and empathy and finally understood that weight gain was more complex than just eating too many calories. Through this, she was able to connect to others and was touched when people were willing to share their stories with her. We all know a Hopkins, she is one of those meany friends who prides herself on giving out home truths and telling it like it is so, it was nice to see her vulnerable and human. Unfortunately, #myfatstory wasn’t a story of transformation as Hopkins turned back into her meany-usual self at the end.

Sharing stories, or mutual communication, helps advance humanity says organisational storyteller Thaler Pekar. For sharing a story, sparks a story and encourages everyone to find new solutions and because of this, content strategist, Contently says that even asking why stories matter, is like asking why we need to eat. Stories help us cope with say, being stuck, instead of panicking and having a pee in the lift.

Over on Lithub, writer Lorrie Moore says that short stories are like life itself – surprising and not entirely invited. Reading a story allows us to find that we need to spend time in the company of people whose troubles we might ordinarily avoid, which allows us to step outside the constraints of our own beliefs and opinions. It might not answer any of our questions, instead it may just animate them in what Moore describes as a a lovely shock of mercy and democracy. And, if that leads us to question even one of our beliefs and to be kinder to our fellow humans or ourselves then that is a good thing.

Ritual: Feast on your life


Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
– Zen proverb

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a ‘why’ life happens as it does, but often, we need a ‘how’.

How does life happen to us? How do we live life? And how do we mark or validate the events which change the shape of our lives?

One way to ‘how’ is through ritual.

A couple of years ago, I happened to attend a naming ceremony at my local Church of England. It was very like a traditional baptism but without the catechism. I didn’t know anyone involved, so can only surmise that the parents wanted to mark the birth of their baby but not have him baptised, as they weren’t or didn’t want to become members of the Church of England.

In years gone by, when church going was something the majority of the population did, the church handled all rituals for us. And today, as the baby’s parents demonstrated, it is still somewhere that many people, who don’t describe themselves as religious, go when they want to mark an event: birth and death; sickness and health, thanksgiving, marriage, and coming of age – to name but a few. People often go when they want some comfort.

But, it is not just the big events which we need to mark and manage. The uneventful days when we are alone can often be just as challenging and in need of a ‘how’. In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety.

Last winter, I was dreading the end of the summer and the drawing in of the dark nights. Each time I thought about it, I felt something close to despair. I soon learnt that by thinking about the upcoming rituals and religious festivals, I could make myself feel happier and more accepting of the dark days. Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas and New Year helped me through the many long nights until spring arrived and I felt better.

There are many rituals we engage in, whether we know it or not. As a child picking brambles up the hills and moors near to where I grew up, we were told to leave the last couple of brambles on each branch, for the fairies to ensure that they would allow the brambles to grow again the following year. I did not know that this is a Celtic tradition, until I read Shiva Rea’s Tending the heart fire. Leaving out some brambles is like an offering to nature, and/or our ancestors. Similarly, the Halloween tradition of ‘Trick or Treat’, when people dress up and exchange candy, is an echo of the same ritual.

Superstition or pagan offerings? Who cares?  Ritual gives us reassurance and hope that although the world is ever-changing, the sun will rise tomorrow, and there will be more brambles to eat next season.

All is well.

This same reassurance can be found in smaller daily rituals, like baking bread or making a pot of tea.  It is no surprise that the Japanese have turned tea making into an elaborate ceremony.  But less elaborate rituals work just as well. They are a moment of pause, a comforting sequence of familiar sounds and smells which can be offered up as meditation and a moment of mindfulness.  And when done with meaning, they can, as the Zen proverb above says, lead or instill a sense of purpose and enlightenment in all aspects of our lives. Other simpler actions can help too. During the winter, I found that the seemingly easy rituals of lighting a fire and some candles, or putting on a pair of fluffy socks and drinking hot milk, helped me feel better when facing a long winter’s night, just as much as looking forward to Christmas did. I felt soothed and comforted.

When I was younger, I used to always be in a hurry, needing to be somewhere else, and now I see it was because I was looking for reassurance and comfort. I believed that I could only find that elsewhere and from someone else. I didn’t know tea-making, fire-lighting, or fluffy socks could help me create a space in which to be, to look within and at my life, and feel better without any external validation.

The poet Derek Walcott puts it beautifully in Love after Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door

Life gives us many experiences good and bad which enrich us all the same. And sometimes there is no one there to comfort us. Nowhere has this been made more clear to me than when I was contemplating the gap on my CV and the well meaning people telling me not mention it for fear that I would never get another job. I didn’t want their advice or fear. I just wanted some sort of support and recognition.

I am finally learning that those experiences happened and are part of me. I don’t have to pretend otherwise. I don’t need to know why. I don’t need well-meaning people giving me advice or anxiety or even recognition. I only need a ‘how’.  How do I mark those events which changed me, if I so choose?  How do I let them go and move on with the rest of my life?  Only I have the answers .

This is a wonderful surprise, and so I am finally beginning to understand the last line of Walcott’s wonderful Love after love.

‘Sit. Feast on your life.’

The time has come, indeed.

Maslow’s hierarchy of social media

Maslow's Social Media Hierarchy

The above image has been doing the rounds for a while, because it is an interesting premise to consider: Does social media fulfill a human need? If so, what better way is there to ponder this question than with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

When we look at why the most popular social media apps were invented, it was because they were answering specific needs. Needs which had arisen and were fulfilled because the Internet compresses time and space to create an environment of sharing:

  • Flickr was invented to share photographs online.
  • Instagram was invented to create polaroid style pictures for sharing.
  • Facebook’s originated because people wanted an online Harvard student network and some say because Mark Zuckenburg wanted to invade peoples’ privacy.
  • LinkedIn got started as an online business networking tool.
  • Twitter came about as a way of sharing SMSs to lots of people simultaneously.
  • YouTube was invented, so the story goes, so that a group of people could share videos of a wedding they had all attended.
  • Pinterest was created so people could save and bookmark all the lovely pictures they found surfing the Internet.
  • WordPress was invented so that people could easily blog online and have lovely pages without having to learn html/css.

Each one of these solved a need, which is why google+ did not become the next big thing in social media. Former Google employee Chris Messina says that whilst it was a good idea to stop Facebook’s major marketshare, google+’s only goal was to replace Facebook, and without a specific need to address, google+ tried too hard (and failed) to be everything to everyone.

What everything is to everyone is impossible to define, as we are constantly changing and adapting, which is why social media does not fit into Maslow’s Hierarchy in the way the image portrays.

Maslow said that humans begin at the bottom of the pyramid and then work their way up. So, once the need for food and water is satisfied, shelter is next, and so on. But, this is not how social media works. So, once I have created my identity on facebook, I don’t move up to the level of twitter for self-esteem. We use multiple social media channels simultaneously, so today when I finish this blog I will publicise its existence on facebook, twitter, google+, etc.

Instead, I believe that we have a fundamental human need to be seen and heard, valued and accepted, and our greatest need when it comes to social media is to share our human experiences good and bad, happy and sad, in order to make sense of them, and to feel connected. This is demonstrated by why the channels were invented in the first place. So, it is not the social media channel, the how we share, which should be fitted into Maslow’s hierarchy, it is what we share that fits into this pyramid.

Last summer, I went to the London Content marketing show which was packed full of great talks, which the audience tweeted throughout the day #contentmarketingshow. I listened to many talks about what types of information people share and what is the most popular type of information. As I took notes, I realised that you can categorise the information which gets shared most into the various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

  • Physiological: Information that make users fearful or angry is shared more often than information which makes them happy, because we all need to feel physically safe and we have that neanderthal fight or flight thing still going on.
  • Safety: Information that helps others and is useful is shared informally or in a formal context such as online educating and learning for the workplace or the classroom, because we all like to feel safe and education is one way of ensuring our safety.
  • Social: People share information about their identity – likes and dislikes, in groups or individually, because we all want to be seen and heard, and to belong and feel loved.
  • Esteem: People share information as social currency: they look cool, they have the latest yoga pants or they have a skill, they blog about something they are knowledgeable, and can influence others, or they wish to be perceived as an influencer, because we need in society to respect ourselves and we like to respect and follow others.
  • Self-actualization:People like to share compelling narratives – anecdotes, stories, pictures, quotation which have helped them grow or to they share to encourage others grow.

And, there is another category of information, which is one of surprise. The type of information which is shared more than anything else on social media is surprising information – in the form of stories, short videos, images, apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

Maslow added a similar category after he had completed his pyramid. He called it the self-transcendance or spirituality category. He put it at the top of the pyramid but stressed that it could go hand in hand with the lowest of needs such as food and water. Surprise does help us to transcend/forget ourselves or to see things in a different way.

Life coach Tony Robbins in his research refers to this as variety and say that although humans need certainty (Maslow’s physiological and safety needs), they also like variety and surprise. We crave new stimulus, to take us out of ourselves, to be lifted up and make our day.

And for me, this is the best bit of social media. Social media can make our day and lift us up. I believe that the person who drew this image thought that too, and gave social media the authority of Maslow’s hierarchy. Used correctly, social media can be a fast way for us to transcend ourselves and feel part of something bigger as we climb up our pyramid of needs.

Storytelling: The hero’s quest

Storytelling clipart

You are
What you do
When it counts.
John Steakley

When I first read this quotation it seemed like a fundamental truth. And I liked it. In those big moments of life, we need to show up and do great things.

It reminded me of the archetypal pattern of storytelling, the hero’s quest, in which, our hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, does great things, and returns home to great rewards. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, it is one of the archetypes which transcends culture and is hard-wired in our psyches. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are based on the hero’s quest. They are epic stories, in which our heros battle monsters and the powers of darkness. These stories resonate and entertain each new generation.

However, the more I pondered on you are, what you do, when it counts, it seemed to me to be misleading. It is implying that we only have to show up and do great things when we spot a big moment, and the rest of the time we don’t have to try. The thing is, each moment in life has the potential to be a big moment. It just might not seem that way, especially if we have a specific expectation of how a big moment in life should look. And since we are embodied, which means we perceive the world through our previous experiences, a big moment to us might not be a big moment to someone else. And vice versa. We could miss doing the great things when it counts, because we weren’t paying attention. Shouldn’t it be you are, what you do, all the time?

Spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson says in A Return to Love , that for many years, she was waiting to be discovered, like 50s film star Lana Turner who was discovered at a drugstore. Williamson says that she was waiting for her life to begin, and that it would only have meaning if it was in the limelight. And then, she realised that she had to give herself permission to be herself and become the star of her own life and live in her own light.

I asked my husband if he was the star in his own life. He said that no he wasn’t, he only has a walk-on part. We both laughed, because it seemed to be true. One view could be that he is an unassuming man who hasn’t really had much say over how his life has turned out. Or another view could be that my husband is a hero who heeded a call to action. He gave up a kidney and work, to do dialysis in order to save our daughter’s life. And then, he went back to work and nursed me through cancer. It wasn’t glamorous. It was exhausting, and like all epics, the outcome seemed sometimes to balance on a knife’s edge, but he didn’t give up. He battled the monsters of critical and chronic illness and the dark side – those horrific thoughts that can terrorise us during uncertain times. And he did it without complaint. Afterwards, there was no accolades, no awards ceremonies or anything else that normally make people feel acknowledged and validated, the way people believe that being famous would make them feel.

Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King once said: Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.

My husband is truly great. It just wasn’t the story he would have chosen to star in, which is what happens to our heros in the hero’s quest. But star in it my husband did. He behaved heroically and served over and above any call of duty, even though he didn’t always want to. He still says to this day: The glamour never starts.

Service comes in all forms, like in the everyday kindnesses you can perform when you are present and not waiting to shine and be congratulated. The kindnesses that make a difference to someone else’s life and ultimately to yours. For the hero’s quest is the very description of life itself, in life coach Martha Beck’s words: Life is one damn thing after another. We can never know if these damn things are big moments or small ones in our lives or the lives of others. But if we show up for them, then either way we are doing what counts, and we are making meaningful connections with others. Often making connections with others, showing our weaknesses, and worrying if we are enough, takes enormous amounts of courage.

Professor of Sociology, Brene Brown, says that it is only by daring greatly and being vulnerable and showing our weaknesses, that we can live life in a whole hearted way. She says that vulnerability may make us feel ashamed and afraid, but it is the birthplace of creativity and love and all the good things that give our lives meaning and make us feel rich and happy.

And that is ultimately what we are all searching for: the meaning of life, and being rich and happy, which is what happens to every hero at the end of an epic adventure.

Storytelling and embodiment: The stories we tell ourselves

Storytelling clipart

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof, Proverbs 18:21, KJV.

Recently, in the Guardian, David Lodge was rereading Anthony Trollope’s last novel The Fixed Period. The story takes place on the fictional island of Britannula, where its Assembly wish to make euthanasia compulsory for everybody over the age of 67. After some debate the age is fixed at 67½. The idea is that the oldies can prepare for death, be feted and celebrated, and go out with great dignity amongst all their creature comforts.

Lodge tells us that the novel was badly received because it was so unlike the rest of Trollope’s work but reflected what was on the 66-year-old Trollope’s mind as he wrote it. Lodge quotes from Trollope’s letters to show us that Trollope meant every word: He felt that he would rather die than be old. He did not fear death, rather he feared being incapacitated and helpless.

Both his fear and his wish came true. In November 1882, Trollope suffered a severe stroke and was paralysed and unable to speak, before dying early December 1882, aged 67½.

Trollope, was a master storyteller. His oeuvre, his life, and his death demonstrate the power of fiction and the power of the stories we tell ourselves. We make our world with our stories, for good and for bad because we are human and embodied. That is, we experience the world through our bodies and their limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. We pattern match, so we view a new experience as a similar bad or good one that we have previously experienced, and then we behave in such a way that makes this new experience fit the good or bad ones that went before it. So, we predict the outcome and make that outcome true and add it to our list of experiences. Ultimately, all we have are our thoughts and experiences, and the stories we tell ourselves. And we tell ourselves stories every minute of everyday often whilst not paying attention to the reality of what is really happening.

Some people cast themselves as victims in the story of their lives. They dwell on past sadnesses which feed into future interpretations of stories of defeat and further sadness. Life Coach, Martha Beck calls this approach to life story fondling. People get out their sad stories and fondle them and polish them instead of letting go and letting them fade with time. Beck recommends that we reeducate ourselves and choose narrative therapy, an approach where we learn to reframe our stories in different ways.
Some people can do this already and seem to be extremely lucky people who lead charmed lives. Beck believes that we can all learn to cast ourselves as heroes so that we can rewire our brains to interpret future events more positively and to lead our own charmed lives.

Sounds great! But it is extremely difficult to do. Yogis spend their whole lives meditating in order to wipe the lense of perception clean in order to see things as they really are, and not how we think they are. The idea behind seeing reality as it is rather than what story we tell in our heads, is that if we see things as they are, rather than what we think they are, life is generally better. But how is that possible? Terrible things occur everyday in daily life, disasters befall us, atrocities are committed to us, true. But often, we can make a drama many times worse by saying it shouldn’t have happened and then compounding the difficulty of the situation by acting under pressure and creating yet more difficulties. And sometimes small dramas seem as bad as the enormous ones because we live them differently in our heads to the reality of what has happened. As Sophocles put it: The greatest grieves are those we cause ourselves.

Spiritual Teacher Iyanla Vanzant talks about how we terrorise ourselves with our stories often about things that do not happen. We cause ourselves pain. Or, we miss out on life because we are believing a story that simply isn’t true. In Tapping the Power Within Vanzant demonstrates this by telling a story of how she never ate okra. She told everyone that she didn’t eat it, she hated it, until one day her neighbour cooked her some and brought it round and it was so delicious. Vanzant had been missing out on this lovely vegetable her whole life, because she had copied someone else’s I hate okra story and took it as her own. How much more had she missed out on because she believed that the good stuff wasn’t relevant to her? She goes on to say that we need to get ourselves better stories and question the ones we have right now, instead of just taking on other peoples’ stories with their habits and learnt helplessnesses.

Spiritual Teacher Byron Katie says similar things in her book Loving what is, and gives us a process to free ourselves of our terrible stories and learn to tell ourselves new stories based in reality. She says that it is not reality which is the problem, it is our thinking. Like Vanzant, Katie says we terrorise ourselves in our heads, instead of seeing what is, we interpret and attach all sorts of pain to things that might or might not be happening. Each time something causes you pain ask: 1) Is it true? 2) Can I absolutely know it’s true? 3) What happens when I think that thought? 4) Who would I be without that thought?

The results are surprisingly liberating. You can stop the thoughts, stop the stories, and observe without emotion what really is happening. Then, instead of the negative thoughts in the negative stories which can destroy your whole day, your whole life, you can create a space and in it, there is peace. Katie firmly believes if we all question our stories and base ourselves in reality, we can become more peaceful and then in turn the world becomes a peaceful place. As Mahatma Gandhi said, Be the change you want to see in the world.

And that is a great story to tell yourself:

Today, I put on my superhero hotpants and changed the world.