From Fixed Truths to Flexible Narratives: Embracing the Stories of Our Lives
In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari presents a powerful thesis that Homo Sapiens came to dominate the planet because we are the only species able to unite and cooperate through the bond of shared stories. We identify with these stories, which form the basis for connecting with total strangers around common beliefs.
Think, for instance, of any sporting event. Total strangers come together, united only by their love for their team. For a brief time, this crowd of strangers creates a robust unified community (or mob!) focused and held together by the shared story that their team is the best.
Harari's thesis is that these shared stories, some enduring over thousands of years, allow Homo Sapiens to cooperate to accomplish common goals as no other species can.
These stories are powerful and, over time, are elevated to the status of reality because we collectively forget that what we believe and accept as truth is a story we have all been taught.
As presented by Harari, it is a compelling thesis that challenged me to the core when I first read the book and reflected on the implications for my own life. I began to see things I had taken for granted as fundamental truths and deeply ingrained tenets of the cultural story I had been raised in.
The stories we tell ourselves about the world are multi-layered. They occur at the global, national, local, neighborhood, and familial levels. Changing the stories at any level is challenging, but I am convinced that not challenging our family of origin stories is at the heart of what holds us in our individual discontent and pain.
Harari's concept of stories changed how I view my work as a therapist and coach. From this new perspective, my work transformed from fixing and solving problems to challenging the stories that people told about themselves and their lives.
You can't change the past or remove the traumas from your childhood, but you can change the stories you tell yourself about the meaning of those events. It may sound like a subtle difference, but in practice, it is a dramatic change in approach.
This whole train of thought was stimulated by a recent homework assignment I received from a quarterly support group for therapists I attend. The task was to write your own eulogy. I am unsure what we will do with them during the retreat, but I was fascinated by how I initially approached the task.
Halfway through, I realized I was telling the same old story I have told all my life: born and raised here, son of him and her, education there, career, etc. It was a resume, and it suddenly felt very flat. These were things I told myself and others to feel good about who I am, to feel good about myself, and to convince myself and others that I fit into the larger cultural story. It was a list of accomplishments and facts designed to comfort my ego.
I realized that when (if?) I am eulogized, I don't want it to be a list of achievements. I want it to be a story about who I was, what I believed in, my values, and how I lived those in my life.
As I changed the focus of the task, my whole perspective on the homework changed. What had started as work shifted to an internal celebration of my time in this world. The words flowed out as I reflected on what I had brought to the events of my life, what they had meant to me, and how, I believe, I had touched others along the way.
The second approach was still a story with no more fundamental truth than the resume version. But it was a different story. Harari maintains that, as humans, we cannot become storyless. Paradoxically, rejecting stories or trying to live without one is, in itself, a story.
Harari's insights force us to question the stories we hold dear and to reevaluate the meaning we ascribe to our lives. As we confront the stories that define us, we come to realize that they are not immutable truths but rather flexible narratives shaped by our perspectives and experiences.
We have the power and freedom to change our stories and, in so doing, change how we view ourselves. So, take a moment to reflect on the story that you tell yourself. What "truth" about yourself are you reinforcing and accepting as set in stone? What is the story you would like to tell yourself about yourself? How would telling that story change your life?
As we journey through life, let us remember that the stories we cultivate within ourselves have the power to shape our reality and profoundly impact the world around us. By crafting narratives that align with our values and aspirations, we open the door to a new chapter of personal growth, connection, and meaning.
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About Dr. Gary M. Jordan, Ph.D.
Gary Jordan, Ph.D., has over 35 years of experience in clinical psychology, behavioral assessment, individual development, and coaching. He earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology – Berkeley. He is co-creator of Perceptual Style Theory, a revolutionary psychological assessment system that teaches people how to unleash their deepest potentials for success. He’s a partner at Vega Behavioral Consulting, Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in helping people discover their true skills and talents. For more information, visit https://www.YourTalentAdvantage.com.
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