Let’s say you are on your way home from work. It’s a Thursday. You get a text from your boss. It says: “Please see me tomorrow morning.”
Before you have finished reading, you will probably have a physical reaction. It may be a sudden surge of adrenaline, a sinking in your stomach or an instant loss of energy. Why? Because those words are ominous. They portend bad news, or at the very least, that something is wrong.
Just in Your Head
But do they?
From the standpoint of being a person –yes, any person –the world seems like an objective thing that we know well.
Even saying the world seems can sound ridiculous. After all, the world doesn’t seem, it is. How could it be other than how it is? Objects and events happen, and they simply are.
That sense of familiarity can lead us astray.
What is Real?
The world may truly be some distinct and objective thing, process, and set of events. But, that objective reality isn’t available to us. The world that shapes our experience and that we share with others and the past we remember –that world is not the “real” world (in the way we normally mean). But it is as close as we can get.
Reality comes to us through a personal filter. The filter isn’t objective. It is interpretive. It exists permanently, between us and the world. Like a thin drape of chiffon, facts enter and get transformed into meaningful stories.
Take the example of the text from your boss. You’re not having a response to the message. The reaction is about the story about it. What story? The story in which it is ominous or means you did something wrong.
That story is what you react to. Not the text. We make meanings. The aren’t any out there.
Feelings About Fictions
Stories endure throughout our lives. Then, we fit every new moment into the existing narrative. Does it matter what story we invent from the standpoint of how our lives turn out? Yes. Our next action, our perspective, our expectations –they all color our behavior and ways of being. And those go to the heart of how careers, relationships and lives themselves unfold.
Each of us experiences the world differently and uniquely –because we have each crafted a world of our own.
The Veil of Narratives
As humans, we have no other way to see things. There is nothing that escapes that model, and it manifests immediately. There’s no duration –not even a nanosecond– between experience and interpretation.
Some of our stories live for months and years. They become our autobiographies, and the biographies of our families, friends, and histories. The stories determine if we feel victimized or strengthened; confident or cowed; loved or neglected. They are the bedrock on which we build our own self-image.
The world is wrapped in the narrative we have invented.
Whether the colleague who left you off an email thread; your sister who didn’t send a birthday card; the way your boss says your name; or the way she looked at you and then away–they are inserted into a perfectly fitted narrative. Human beings live within stories and can’t escape their experience.
Living Out Our Stories
When we expect a horrible outcome we arrive sullen, afraid, or feeling defeated. That alters whatever happens next.
But don’t despair. Hidden in this model is a super-power!
Since our narratives have so much effect on how our lives unfold we should probably take some control of them.
So many of our stories drag us down. They arouse our insecurities. They lead us to be suspicious, distrustful, and frustrated, rather than appreciative and open.
Sometimes they do the opposite – yet in equally unhelpful ways. They give us hope where there ought to be none. They allow us to avoid things we should confront.
Not Destiny. Decision.
But, once you understand the illusion of a shared “reality” you can start to separate the story from the fact. Since our experiences come from interpretations; and interpretations are not facts but inventions – you can invent something different.
It starts with acknowledging the difference between a story and a fact. They are different things.
As you might expect, like so many simple things, it is not easy. But try it anyway.
An Exercise in Creativity
Take a single instance where you feel upset about something that happened and do a little personal inventory. Draw a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper. In the left-hand column describe the fact. Think like Dragnet in the famous TV show: “All we want are the facts Ma’am”.
Facts look like a police report: I received a text from the boss saying, “come to my office”. That’s it. No back story, context, and no meaning.
On the other side of the paper write the whole narrative you invented. That looks like “He may fire me”, “He heard about that deal I messed up” or whatever long story you’ve fit the text into. Do this even if you think your interpretation is absolutely accurate.
Unlimited Possible Stories
On a new piece of paper do the same thing: Write down the facts on one side. But on the other side, write down a different story about it. Add a theme. Maybe this story is about a promotion. Another might be comical; try inventing a supernatural story or one in which there is a typo that changes the whole sentence. Perhaps you could invent one that is conspiratorial or part of a practical joke.
Pay attention to your experience as you do this. With each new interpretation, your emotions may shift. You may find it amusing, or exciting. Or it may simply have no meaning at all as you strip it down to facts.
Once you have created a bunch of different themed stories you should have some internal sense of the difference between the fact and the story.
Now, invent a story that empowers you; one that gives you self-determination or lightness or dignity.
You choose. But don’t settle for the narrative that emerges automatically. It is usually not the best one or the most empowering. It’s up to you to craft the right story for your facts and your commitment.
“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” -Anais Nin-