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.

Storytelling: The power of fiction

Storytelling clipart

A book is one-to one experience. A secret you share. And when you close the book it leaves an opening in you – Jeanette Winterson

When I was a teenager in English Class at school, I remember hearing a short story about a family at night: The kids have gone to bed, the mum is tidying round, the dad is drying the dishes. Mum then goes to check on the children. When she comes back, she says:

‘Are you sure they don’t know anything?’

Dad hangs up his tea towel, puts his arms around her and says:

‘Yes. I am sure.’

They turn off the lights and go to bed, knowing that the world will end that night.

At the end of the reading, the teacher said, ‘Now, it’s your turn, what would you do if the world was going to end tonight?’

A classroom full of teenagers’ responses, strangely enough, I don’t remember, but the story I do. So much so that 20 or so years on, often when I am in kitchen loading the dishwasher or putting dishes away, I think about that story. And I also remember that era, when the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world seemed to be a real possibility.

Recently, in a review in the TLS, Martha Naussbaum says the English novel was a social protest movement from its inception, written specifically to creating feeling amongst the wealthier classes. She cites Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis – the work of social psychologist C. Daniel Batson – which demonstrates that specific ways of storytelling can motivate people to help those in need in a way that facts and figures cannot.

There are so many examples of powerful storytelling. Sitting here, I think of Toni Morrison’s description of the tree-shaped scars on the back of Sethe, the runaway slave who murders her children rather than have them be enslaved and whipped (Beloved). I think of concentration camp inmate Victor Frankl’s non-fiction account of how he was told to rub his cheeks each morning so that he would look healthy enough to work and avoid being sent to the gas chambers that day (Man’s Search for Meaning). I read both books just once, yet the stories they contain will remain with me forever. They changed my perception of the world and my historical understanding of the times and places in which these stories were set.

Fictional journalism or creative non-fiction, is a field of writing which has developed from factual reporting to a more subjective slant precisely because it recognises the power of storytelling and the power to influence readers’ opinion. So much so, that according to Wikipedia, Joan Didion, the famous new fiction writer believes, that the media tells us how to live and that journalists must be closely observed because of the power they wield. In the same way, storytelling is often used in advertising to create an emotional reaction in potential customers, and we believe these stories: We will be sexier, happier, healthier if we buy that new car, or that big chocolate ice-cream. Stories can be incredibly influential and not always in a good way.

Fictional fact-presentation such as case studies or descriptions of individuals in medical journals can be powerful in a good way. Ones I have read about chronic renal failure, were presented alongside facts and figures, and in a sidebar described how someone born without working kidneys could grow through dialysis onto transplant and into ‘normal’ life.

The same goes for the breast cancer literature I have read. Individual stories of women and men from diagnosis through treatment were highlighted throughout the pamphlets and presented a pattern of how to manage and what to expect. They were like signposts indicating the way through a journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said in life, often we are not searching for the meaning of life necessarily, but for the experience of being alive and how to understand it. As in the medical literature, stories can be our guide. They can explain things to us, things that we might know subconsciously, but which we only really appreciate once we have read them in stories or myths. Stories highlight patterns which we can follow like landmarks on the horizon and enable us to make our way to a more satisfactory life.

Other times, stories can inspire us to be truly great. Campbell encapsulates this theory in his best known quotation Follow your bliss. He says that we are capable of knowing and experiencing rapture and bliss but sometimes we just don’t know how. Stories, again can be our guiding star and they enable us to realise our potential, gain wisdom, or live fuller and better lives.

Sometimes stories tap deep into our psyche and give us the answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking.

The key though, is to find the right story, the stories which resonate with us, the ones which change us, and the ones which make us want to change the world. Otherwise, as Campbell once joked, we might end up just following our blisters.