Friday, March 16, 2020

The stories we tell ourselves

Stories about events are often more powerful than the reality they replace

Recently, I was in our local Barnes & Noble bookstore and idly picked up a book of Victorian photographs of Tombstone. In this part of Arizona, Tombstone’s the nearest thing we have to Disneyland. They reenact “The Gunfight at the OK Corral” every day, sometimes more than once. The book had contemporary photographs of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Both looked like local preachers or small-town bank managers. Neat suits, white shirts, carefully knotted ties. The Clanton gang they gunned down looked much the same. You could change the captions to read “Respectable Inhabitants of 1880s Tombstone.”

That’s why stories are often more powerful than the reality they’re based on (or replace); and why many of our firmest beliefs come from such stories. Reality is so darned dull.

Good stories—the right words put together in the right way—have the power to inspire us, terrify us, or shape our view of the world for years ahead. Do you enjoy a good story? Of course. Have you ever embellished the way you recounted events to make a better story? You’d be an unusual person if you said you had not.

I had a friend who worked in air accident investigation. He told me the only truly reliable witnesses to air accidents were small children. They told what they saw. Adults told stories based on what they thought they ought to see, then embellished them to make the stories more vivid and interesting.

Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.

People constantly tell one another stories, at a bar, in the office, at home around the dining table. Marketers tell stories about products. Newscasters add human interest stories to enhance dull, factual news. Hollywood and television entertainment are nothing but stories. Of course, we tell ourselves stories too—about what things mean, what other people must be thinking, about why we did, or said, things that worked out or failed us. Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.

Our heads are full of creative fiction, loosely based on real events.

Most of these stories aren’t true. Some never were; some have embellished and changed real events out of all recognition. The human mind is excellent at creating its own version of how things must have been. That’s especially true when it comes to the parts that other people played in our lives. We assume that we understand their feelings, their motives, and their hidden agendas. In our stories, all their plots and secret endeavors are plain to see.

Much of the stress that we feel is caused by the power of our imaginations to turn dull events into powerful, stomach-churning tales of people’s ambition, jealousy, spite, and perfidy. Much of it—probably nearly all of it—is little more than fiction. But that doesn’t alter the effect it has on our own feelings. Imaginary hurts are just as cutting as real ones. An act of treachery by a friend, or a piece of gratuitous cruelty by a boss, that we have produced mostly in our own imagination is no less painful than the real thing. Do we know this is what happened? Almost certainly no. But we assume it is true, and feel and act accordingly. And that’s without the added pain caused by other people who tell us tales about people and events that they have embellished with their own fears, worries, and biases.

Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten.

Are others plotting to harm you? Possibly, but probably not with any real energy. Was this or that statement or event aimed at you? Maybe, but probably it was simply chance that you got in the way. The dull reality is that most of us are far too wrapped up in our own concerns, hopes, fears, and desires, to spend more than a tiny fraction of our attention on anyone else. We are opportunists, seizing any chance to advance our own agenda, and mostly ignoring the effect this has on anyone else. We aren’t even positively nasty. Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten. We did what we did because it suited us at the time, and had no more thought of anyone else than a cat has for the feelings of the mouse it happens upon and thinks would make a nice snack.

This is good and bad. Bad, of course, because we are typically so careless of the feelings and concerns of others. Good, because, once you recognize it as the truth, it frees you from the majority of worries about what other people are thinking about you. They aren’t thinking about you at all. They’re engrossed in the marvelous story that’s running through their head; the one where they have the starring role, and everyone else is looking at them.

What about the stories you tell yourself? What are they like? Are they inspiring or depressing? Do they make you feel ready to create a better future, or ready to give up now?

Be careful of such stories, because you’ll believe them. Repeat them often enough and they’ll become reality. Maybe the phrase about the power of positive thinking ought to be rewritten as “the likely results of telling yourself more positive stories.”

But then,”the power of positive thinking” sounds like the start of a better story.

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Stephen said...

Hi Coyote,

Your perception of business practices and people matches my own practical experience.
I find this very reassuring as it has been quite unnerving during my career to observe how many people deny what I would call reality and continue to sing the company song even to the detriment of there own situation.

I wasn’t thinking of commenting so much as asking some questions, hopefully which haven’t been asked before:-

Do you think “Hamburger Management” has always existed?

Do you think it is increasing?

If so why?

Is there anything in the situation we can change to improve things?

For the record I think the answers are:-

Yes it has.

Yes it is increasing.

It´s increasing because the worth of labour has decreased enormously due to technological change, globalisation of the labour market and a decrease in public services.

Tricky. To solve the problem would probably require a major rethink of our system and the attitudes it promotes.

I look forward to reading your own insights and opinions.



10:24 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...


Thanks for a truly excellent comment.

I was wondering to myself earlier what topics I might tackle in my postings over the days to come. I think that you have given me the impetus for several postings with your perceptive questions!

Many thanks . . . and watch this space.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:54 AM  
Herman Najoli said...

Very insightful post. Makes me think too of how we perceive the future. Someone once said that the things we fear about the future rarely ever come to pass. If our past experiences are "illusions" based on our personal interpretation of events, doesn't it suffice to say that we predetermine our reality based on our thinking about the future?

1:14 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Herman.

I agree with you. What we fear rarely happens in the way we expect. Usually, it doesn't happen at all.

What would help us most rarely comes as we imagine it will, either. That's why it's so important to pay attention to life and keep an open mind. You never know what you'll miss if you don't.

Keep reading, my friend.

1:28 PM  
Steve Roesler said...

Nice post, Adrian,

I especially like "Our heads are full of creative fiction, loosely based on real events."

Had a consulting engagement for a number of years with a homicide investigation team. They would be the first to affirm your quote. At times, they had numerous witnesses; but none with exactly the same story. Most were not being deceptive at all. Their own experiences, personalities, penchant (or lack) for detail, etc., all came into play.

But one thing was clear: Everyone liked a good story!


5:21 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Steve.

People sometimes wonder why it can be so hard to get a large group to agree easily on anything. One of the reasons is that each person thinks they see what is truly there—only it's not quite the same as what their neightbor sees, which is slightly diffferent from what their neighbor sees, and so on.

Everyone is probably observing identical facts, but their inner dialogues are using those facts to create different stories about reality.

The good news is that many of our joys are based on the stories we tell ourselves. The bad news is that the same goes for most of our pains and miseries.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:25 PM  

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