I believe it is ingrained in our DNA to connect to and attach ourselves to story (I’m sure someone can send me the research…I’m too lazy this morning). It’s largely how our ancestral history has been passed down century to century: those before us painted, wrote, or spoke their story.
Much of the stories that have been collected are honest recollections of the past, but many are works of fiction. This is not because they were told with the intent of being manipulative (well, maybe sometimes), but because they were shaped by the writer’s or painter’s inherent bias. We explore the world through our lens; we see the world the way our brain tells us to see the world. Objectivity is impossible for the card-carrying bias holder that is the human race.
Back to the power of narrative…
Too many times I have been a part of or privy to the consequences of attaching ourselves too closely to story. A story that is created in the mind of one that spreads like a virus to the group. Perhaps embedded in the story are kernels of truth, and these are the kernels that legitimize the story in the minds of the listeners. “If they did this, then they must have done that,” and so on. We want the easy explanation and when it is laid out for us, so beautifully, with a few truths that we can easily verify, it adds up and we accept. This isn’t necessarily shocking because this process has enabled us to survive, to wade through all the information and make the grey, black or white. We need sense and our brain seeks to create it.
Yet, this easy acceptance of story can get us in to trouble. It can ruin lives. It can change the life trajectory of so so many. If you need examples, look at what’s happening with the #metoo movement. Of course I want women who have been victimized to receive help and support from their community; I want perpetrators to pay for their actions. What I don’t want is for the innocent to be caught up in the fray; to punish those for actions they didn’t make for the sake of a movement. This is a big example, but this plays out in small ways every day.
What can you do to prevent being swept up in the story? How can you resist the urge to become a part of the narrative at work, home or in your friend group?
- Pause. Ask yourself what you know to be true (well, your experience, perhaps not always the truth, but your version of it) and what is based on someone else’s narrative? Who is creating the story that you’re now accepting?
- Think. Explore why someone may be acting the way they’re acting. Don’t assume the worst. In fact, assume the best. Look at their actions from all angles. Better yet, ask them.
- Don’t assume. When we think, which is an important thing to do, we start to weave our facts together to create our own story and explanation for someone’s behaviour. This is incredibly dangerous and yet, we do it all the time. How many stories playing out in your head are based on assumption? “She’s not coming to this event because she doesn’t like me” or “I didn’t get that promotion because so-and-so has it out for me” or “he didn’t say hi to me because I didn’t ask him for coffee yesterday”. These can be big or small, but the small can become the big. Be wary.
- Call it out. When you realize narrative is taking a person or a group on a path that may be damaging, call it out. Ask questions. Talk about assumptions. Don’t let yourself get swept away. You own your story.
Story is compelling. It can sweep us away on a beautiful adventure, but it can also let our imaginations run wild in a not-so-wonderful way. And there are many gifted storytellers among us…
P.S. if there are errors – spelling or grammar – email me. I wrote this quickly – stream of consciousness writing today.