Tell Another Story

NaBloPoMo 2021:  Do Good, Kid

What emotions and attitudes underlie the chronic and automatic narratives we harbor in our lives and relationships?  It’s a hard question, and well worth asking.  A couple days ago I wondered about stories I tell about someone after recurrent negative experiences with them.  But what about stories I tell about other people based solely on my own issues?  We each carry around a unique knapsack of biases, overt and occult.  They weigh and slow us down; they hinder our ability to connect with one another.  What relationships do we miss, damage, or destroy because of them, without even knowing?

So what about the driver who cuts you off in traffic?  Conventional wisdom tells us to imagine that they are having some kind of emergency; they are not a bad person.  I agree, we should not assume they are ‘bad.’  But let’s imagine there’s no emergency.  They drive without regard to others’ safety or traffic law every day.  So they’re rude, disrespectful, a menace—that’s another plausible, albeit still judgmental, story.  They’re not like us, we’re not like that.  So we are justified in our angry outburst at their insolence…  And now we’ve given away our peace for no benefit, and we have separated ourselves from another person, if only abstractly.

What do we imagine causes a person to behave—to live—without regard to others?  When have we behaved like that ourselves—maybe not behind the wheel, but in other situations?  What was driving us to do that?  Where is that our default pattern?  What self-justifying story do we tell about that?  Some would argue that when we knowingly harm others or put them at risk, it comes from our own places of pain.  We are wired to survive, and striking before being stricken works well for that.  We succumb to innate negativity bias, zeroing in on what could harm us and deflecting or destroying it, before appreciating what helps us, and then attracting and manifesting that.  The rude driver cuts us off, we call them a (jerk).  Everyone for themselves, check.

What if I tell the story that that person deserves more love and appreciation, more opportunity in life, than they are used to getting?  When I behave like that, don’t I have some unmet need that I’m advocating for, however subconsciously and ineptly?  What other, more fundamental question, helps us to ask when engaging with people who put us off at first?  When I tell a more empathetic and compassionate, or at least less judgmental story about others and myself, how does that affect my general outlook, and then my behavior, my relationships, and my overall satisfaction with life?

Envy.  Insecurity.  Hurt.  Disappointment.  Grief.  Disdain.  Pride.  Self-righteousness.  Loneliness.  Stories grounded in these emotions tell us about scarcity and competition, which may be real, and also incomplete plotlines.  If survival is all we can hope for, these stories may suffice.

Generosity.  Kindness.  Curiosity.  Humility.  Fairness.  Honesty.  Connection.  Love.  These themes paint a different story mural, one with more color and light, and much more depth and complexity.  Beyond survival, such stories hold the possibility for abundance, thriving, flourishing, and synergy. 

I’m not saying we should whitewash destructive behavior and waive responsibility for any harm we inflict on each other.  Accountability and compassion are not mutually exclusive.  I do think that we too easily throw each other and our connections away based on behaviors (or opinions, positions, and causes) that do not necessarily represent our whole selves.  We tell harsh, oversimplified stories based on sparse information and copious judgment.

Telling more stories is like choosing the wide angle rather than the zoom or macro lens.  It gives us an opportunity to see a bigger, more coherent, unified picture.  Exploring alternative explanations, beyond our automatic assumptions, enables crucially broader perspective.  Applying this practice regularly can help avert myriad conflicts based on miscommunication and misunderstanding, and clear the brambled paths between us.  It is yet another vital tool for connection and peace.