One time when I was young – a long, long time ago – some friends and I went to a house party. We were all cute and full of hormones and there were crushes and switches of affection and flirting going on.
By the end of the party, we were all mad at each other. During the course of the evening, Scott had been brutally replaced in Cindy’s affections by Mark, who I liked, but who wasn’t really serious about her or about me either, but Scott had ignored me too even though he liked me before he liked Cindy and…so on.
It was one big boiling pot of late-teen angst and romance. Could have been an episode of MTV’s Real World if we had been 1) better-looking and 2) drunk.
Instead of staying mad, we decided to do something rather remarkable. We all wrote our stories of what had happened that night in that living room and then read them to an audience of other friends. Guilt or innocence would be decided by a vote of the people.
When we heard the stories, we were shocked. It was like we weren’t in the same room, so little overlap was there between the four realities. We all had our own histories, and they weren’t at all alike.
Four people. Same room. Same night. Completely different accounts.
Yesterday at church, my dear Reverend Bonnie posed a question. “What would it be like,” she asked “If you could give up your stories of what had happened when someone wronged you?”
I started thinking about it. My psycho ex-boss who humiliated and tormented me and my co-workers…What if she wasn’t trying to torment us? What if she was just managing her crew the best way she knew how? What if she was behaving how she had been taught and thought was right?
What if…what if there was just no way of me knowing what the hell was going on with her?
I had a story about her that I had told myself and anyone who would listen. I told it about 1000 times. I was right, she was wrong. She was not just wrong. She was a lunatic horrifying control freak bitch bent on breaking people.
Other people popped into my mind. What if my story switched from “They are the biggest jerks, they are monsters” to “I have no idea why they behave the way they do”? What would that feel like?
And what about me? What about all the times I had hurt people? Wasn’t I just trying to get what I wanted and not necessarily going about it in a skillful way?
Yes. That was true to me. I rarely meant to cause harm, and even in those cases it was more like the lashings of a wounded animal than a deliberate attempt to cause pain.
But I knew that other people had stories about me, too, about what kind of awful person I was. I remembered one of the other managers at a job who had told my boss he would never, ever want to work with me…I had tried to laugh it off but it still stung to be so misunderstood.
What if none of my stories about what people did to me were true? Or what if there was just no way of knowing if they were true?
This switch from knowing to not-knowing felt like a miracle. A great pallet of bricks was lifted off of my heart, swinging up through the air on a crane instead of pressing down and trapping me in my past.
It wasn’t that people don’t behave in awful, hurtful, mean, crazy ways sometimes. It was just that I realized I don’t benefit or learn by carrying around a story of why they do.
I can learn what I need to know and protect myself apppropriately without having to build a tale of why I am right and why they are wrong. I can get away, I can fight back, I can inform the authorities – all without having to construct an elaborate structure of cause and blame.
Those old stories are pretty much useless.
I don’t know any more. I don’t have to. And in that, there is freedom.