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Telling Stories

October 10, 2011

Someone really doesn't like Mayor Villaraigosa

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.

  1. October 10, 2011 21:57

    I love this. It’s often tricky, but always necessary, to challenge our own assumptions. I wish I was better at it.

  2. October 10, 2011 22:04

    This is such a good post. Thanks to Alexis for retweeting it. I often think about this kind of thing. What is that person really isn’t trying to be totally thoughtless, what if they don’t realize.
    Yesterday I was leaving a parking lot and I accidently blocked the right turn lane even though I wanted to turn left. It was an accident, but once I had done it, I could not move out of the way because of other cars. The person behind me was honking and cursing me. When she finally got around me, she gave me the finger. This is just a small, surface example, but I think it is easy to be misunderstood.

    • October 11, 2011 06:00

      Excellent example, Lisa. My heart always squinches up when I am waiting for someone to cross in a crosswalk and the person behind me decides I am being an idiot and passes, almost killing the people who are crossing…It is indeed easy to be misunderstood. Probably more common than actual understanding!

  3. October 11, 2011 05:20

    This is a good way to look at things and people. I agree with Alexis that it is necessary to challenge our assumptions, but know that it is ever so difficult to do. I need to work on this. Starting today. Thanks.

    • October 11, 2011 06:01

      I’m glad to have an influence! Maybe I’ll start a cult “I know nothing! Neither do you!”

      • October 21, 2011 07:12

        Count me in your cult. Great name.

        • October 24, 2011 20:52

          No cult necessary. All a bunch of weirdos and free-thinkers here.

  4. October 11, 2011 05:22

    Love, love, love this. So much. What a constructive, useful spin on the old “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle” thing. Instead of “consider their view” it’s “let go of yours.” I want to draw pink puffy hearts all over this. Thank you.

  5. Belén permalink
    October 11, 2011 08:44

    So true! Nobody wins the cause-and-blame game. And keeping score is exhausting. But sometimes I think I’m hard-wired to do it. It’s an issue I’m continually working on.

    • October 11, 2011 11:09

      I think we have a need to feel we have everything figured out. I wonder if it is possible to give that up?

  6. October 11, 2011 09:15

    I’ve been reading The Five Things We Cannot Change by David Richo, and he talks a lot about learning to respond to others in a way the gives them compassion and freedom even if they aren’t being very loving. He says that we don’t have to accept bad treatment, but we still need to be compassionate and respond from a place of mindful lovingkindness. I think it is easy when we have been wronged to have a justifiable sense of HEY, YOU HURT ME AND YOU WERE MEAN AND WRONG! YOU’RE A JERK WHO LIKES HURTING PEOPLE! and so very hard to do just what you say – recognize that you don’t really know why they did what they did and that it could very well be that they are hurting and fearful and have no recognition of how their behavior is hurting others.

    I struggle a lot with this in regards to my ex, and I find myself doing it sometimes with SG. If we miscommunicate, I begin to automatically assume that he’s deliberately not hearing me or understanding me. Its a challenge to put those ideas away and approach people from a different angle.

    Thanks for a really excellent and thoughtful post, Sue.

    • October 11, 2011 11:11

      Well, thank you! I have that Five Things book beside my bed…picked it up a couple weeks ago and it seems he has a lot to say.

      It was big for me to look back at my last long relationship and say “That was difficult and maddening,” instead of “What a jerk,” but it feels more true to me to acknowledge that it was a two way street. Or maybe a two-way high-speed highway to hell 🙂

  7. October 12, 2011 08:21

    This is the hardest thing for me to….accept in life. I keep trying but, wow, I’m not sure how much progress I’m making.

  8. October 12, 2011 08:33

    I don’t tend to dwell on the story of how I was wronged as much as I dwell on “what could I have done differently?”. I rework the story with different outcomes, different words. What if I had said this instead of that? Sometimes, my head fills up with it all and I think about writing letters to those people. Then I shake myself out of it, come to my senses. What’s done is done. You can’t change what’s happened in the past, but you can change how react to similar things in the future because you’ve had practice.

    • October 13, 2011 16:34

      Sounds familiar. Way too familiar.

  9. October 13, 2011 10:39

    I’ve been trying to work on this, too. It is definitely not easy but once I can get my head around the whole thing, it does help. But the whole not knowing *why* he/she did what he/she did can still drive me a bit mad sometimes.

  10. October 13, 2011 19:31

    What a great concept, a wonderful way to re-frame things. I have been walking around with a lot of negativity lately, and have been trying to tell myself alternate stories than the ones that want to cycle through my head and make me more & more negative.

    It’s mostly working.

    But I’m still holding on to the notion that they were actually trying to kill my mother in the hospital yesterday. (It couldn’t have been sheer stupidity that they didn’t NOTICE that she had severe aortic stenosis, could it? Oh, they were supposed to READ the chart before treating her? Radical concept!)

    • October 14, 2011 08:37

      Yes, re-framing. That’s it. That way you can still walk around and try your best to get your mom the treatment she deserves, but you don’t waste your energy making up stories which may or may not be true about the incompetence of the hospital staff.

  11. October 15, 2011 10:51

    It’s funny, I just encountered a person from my past the other day, and she hugged me like an old friend and exclaimed how happy she was to see me. We had worked at the same place and there had been turmoil there, and we had both been on opposite sides. I left to take another job. So our encounter had a lot of undertow that we automatically ignored, by some sort of unspoken mutual agreement. We chatted and gossiped and walked away from one another with, I think, good feelings.

    The next day I was telling another friend about the meeting – and it really truly wasn’t until that retelling that I remembered the entire story of that workplace, and the roles we both had played, and how badly I’d felt, and how I had disliked her.

    All those negative emotions! They had been completely forgotten. And as I told my friend the old story, instead of being angry or sad about it, I became filled with amusement, at how ridiculous it all had been.

    • October 15, 2011 13:18

      That old aphorism about time healing all wounds isn’t always true…but sometimes.

  12. Danielle permalink
    October 21, 2011 21:55

    I’ve been working on being conscious of the times I am telling myself a story about something. There usually are very few actual *facts* in situations and lots of “stories” that we make up around those facts for it to make sense for us. I think it is human nature and yet being conscious of when I am creating a story makes me more conscious of the many possible reasons something could be happening and that I really have no way of knowing why that really happened. This helps me be kinder and gentler with myself and with others. Thanks for sharing this – I really connected with it.

    • October 24, 2011 20:52

      You’re welcome! Personally, I make up a lot of stories…I love a story more than the truth, it seems.

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