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What's Your Story? Life as Narrative

What we tell ourselves about the world and life shapes who we are.

Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Whether or not we are truly inventors of our own lives, we certainly are inventors of the story of our lives. For some, this story is clear and in the forefront of their minds, becoming what drives them, what determines how they spend their time and energy. For many others the story is less clear, fragmented, or seemingly outside their awareness but often easily seen by others: Jake always casts himself as the victim, Sara the martyr, Carly always thinks things will work out for the best, while Henry is always braced for the worst.

Our story is shaped by the stories of others, those important to us who were not only role models but who also doled out their own particular philosophies of life. And of course, there are our own experiences and values. Our story becomes the lens through which we view life’s events, our relationships with others; it determines what can expect of ourselves and life itself.

So, what’s your story? Here are some questions to help you define yours. As you answer them, think not in terms how you think things ought to be, but rather how you think and behave in everyday life.

How safe is the world, and other people?

This is about trust, about anxiety and fear. Bad things happen out of the blue; the other shoe always drops; others are out to screw you or scam you. You need to be cautious, alert, take what people say with a grain of salt, trust your family or your kind, but be wary of everyone else.

Or no, sure there are always some bad apples, even dangerous people, but most people are good, considerate, willing to help or at least turn the other cheek. Sure, bad things happen, but also a lot of good things happen as well if we just look for them. You don’t want to be naïve, but it’s okay to trust and believe that things will or can be worked out.

How do you treat others?

This obviously follows from the first. If the world is unsafe, if others can’t be fully trusted and you are wary, you hold back, you keep your distance. Or no, your stance is more aggressive than that: it’s every man/woman for his or her self. Or there’s a middle ground of politeness and courtesy to those you don’t know, if not necessarily a friendliness. Or your values, personality, and outlook cause you to reach out, always give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, and, if possible, a helping hand. The world is our family.

What’s your measure of happiness or success?

For some, it is measured by the attainment of goals in the bigger world — achievement in a career, wealth, professional reputation. For others it may be a contentment that comes from the support and love of family, friends; for parents, it may be measured by the happiness of their children. For still others, happiness is not measured by outcome but by doing — being creative or doing what gives you meaning, competing against your rivals and hopefully coming out on top, or some combination of all the above.

Think of what you strive or hope for, but also what brings you happiness in the everyday.

How do you reach your measure of happiness/success?

You put your head down, stay focused on the goal, and work hard. No, you follow your instincts, your imagination, those wisps of creativity, your faith. Or you succeed by helping others succeed — encouraging and supporting them in their own quest for happiness, being the best role model you can be. Or no, you reach your goals by keeping an eye on your rivals and making the most of their weaknesses.

Why do bad things happen?

They just do; they help us see and appreciate the good; there is really no bad but only what we decide to call bad; it is God’s will, God’s test for us; they are pay-backs for our wrongs. We don’t know.

What is the purpose of life, your life?

See above.

Do you have major regrets, guilt? How has it shaped your view of life, your image of yourself?

Regrets and guilt can certainly teach us lessons, but often their wounding overshadows and outlasts the crime. Think of that poor secret service agent who 40 years later is still haunted and feeling responsible for the death of John Kennedy, and still unable to forgive himself. Regrets and guilt can cause us to stay stuck in the past, feel that we are not entitled to happiness, drastically turn our view of life and ourselves upside down.

If you were to pick one word to describe the overall tone of your life what would it be?

As you work through these questions, is there a theme? If you had a pick a song to be the soundtrack of your life, what would that song be?

In one sentence, what advice would you most want to pass onto your children, your grandchildren?

So, what have you discovered? What is the story that you consciously or unconsciously tell yourself about the nature of relationships, the world? How has this story shaped your expectations and defined your purpose and philosophy about your life and life itself?

One final question: Do you want to keep your story, or do you want to change it?