The Stories We Tell
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
Video of the service now available by clicking HERE to view the service.
Our reading today is a set of three quotes:
The first is from Terry Pratchett
There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.
The second is from Joan Borysenko
We cannot wish old feelings away nor do spiritual exercises for overcoming them until we have woven a healing story that transforms our previous life’s experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured.
The third is from Brené Brown
I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.
Stories. We all have them – victim stories. Hero stories. Denial stories. Justification stories. Hope stories, defeat stories. Resilience stories and good old country western style or sad sad blues stories.
As humans we tell ourselves stories all the time. Give us a few random pieces of information and our minds will make something out of it. That guy at the department store – he’s trying on wingtip shoes at the department store and has a glow about him – he’s getting married, he’s buying his outfit, he’s choosing shoes he can dance in. The neighbor with the meticulously groomed lawn, who’s out there every day watering or weeding or planting or something – she’s trying to distract herself from an unhappy marriage or she’s planning to enter the “best gardens” competition, or trying to impress her neighbors, namely you. Your boss seems agitated, unhappy, hard to get along with. You wonder if she doesn’t like your work, or doesn’t like you?? Creating stories out of very little actual information, it’s a great gift, can keep us entertained, sometimes gets us in trouble when the story we tell becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Because we don’t just tell and shape stories with our wonderfully active imaginations, the kinds of stories we tell also shape us. There’s a question in this month’s soul matters theme materials. Are you writing stories or are your stories writing you?
Referring, to the stories we tell about our own lives. Yes, those hero stories or defeat stories. The hopeless stories the if only stories. The I did great or the I failed yet again stories… Most of us have a wealth of stories we tell about ourselves and our lives that tend to reinforce themselves. And they are not always helpful.
I recently heard a new way of categorizing the kinds of stories we tell and whether they are good for us or not so good. Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams refers to them redemption vs contamination stories. Humans have been telling stories of both types since the beginning of time. Redemption stories are the ones where the protagonist, for example, you, comes out the winner. They are hopeful, resilience stories, success stories, survivor stories. Then there are what he calls contamination stories, where the protagonist, again, that could be you, comes out the loser, is vanquished victimized, crushed, defeated. Those sad sad blues stories that you’ll hear on your favorite radio station or Spotify channel.
Now although we all tell both kinds of stories, some of us may tend to tell more of one kind than the other. You won’t be surprised to hear that researchers have found that those who tell redemption stories tend to do better in life, tend to be happier, rate themselves as more fulfilled. Those who tell contamination stories tend to be less happy, tend to not do as well, tend to be dissatisfied with life.
Which is likely why someone came up with the idea of story editing.
Which, to radically oversimplify is to take the first kind and turn it into the second. Take the hopeless defeat story and change the outcome. You win in the end. You surmount the odds, you turn things around.
For example, you get fired from your job. You feel like a hopeless failure. You edit the story. Now, it’s your boss who is a foolish jerk. And, you were too good for that job anyway. And, you will find something better that you truly deserve. There are a million ways to edit a story. And once you d, you go about your life feeling more hopeful, energized, ready for the next thing.
So that’s sounds great right?
My only problem is that when I’ve tried this, it works – sometimes?? But other times it doesn’t work. I tell myself the new story, and before I know it there’s a 3rd voice in my head saying – who do you think you’re kidding. It was totally your fault. And then this new voice will helpfully count the ways. Remember that thing you did last week? And the email you sent last month? And the presentation you flubbed last year? Before I know it I’m in an argument with myself and not feeling better, or more hopeful, or more resilient at all.
Or, maybe I hold onto that new thought even though I don’t really believe it. I just insist. Push all the doubts to the back of my mind. I talk louder to myself, to the part of me that doesn’t agree. Sometimes that works too, sort of. I’ve gotten through some things that way. But it doesn’t exactly feel relaxed.
This whole concept of changing the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves reminds me of a fad, I want to say from the late 90’s? When there was this popular idea to put sticky notes on your bathroom mirror. Affirmations. You’re smart. You’re strong. You’re beautiful, people love you. You’re good at saving money. You’re very patient with everyone. Stuff like that.
Except the third time you look at it, just after you’ve finished yelling at your kids or splurging on shoes or tools through some mail order catalog – which is how people spent too much before amazon – by the third or fourth time you look at it it’s just annoying. Or maybe you stop noticing it altogether, it gets old, faded & brittle, falls off & eventually gets swept up into your bathroom trash can.
Why is it so hard to change our stories?
I read once that if you have a thought in your head and a feeling in your body and if they are different, then the feeling is more true.
Which on the one hand sounds really discouraging. Like wait, are you saying my affirmations aren’t true? Are you saying I really am not smart, strong, or beautiful? Are you saying I will never be patient or save money?
Well, no I’m not saying that, but your feelings may be saying that, and they can be pretty convincing to you.
You can see this whole, thinking/feeling thing in action if you try saying to someone, no, tell me what you really think – and if they actually do, they are probably telling you how they feel and you can tell they meant it. And whether or not you liked hearing it, it will probably feel more true to you, too.
All of which points to why story editing, at least in the way I originally pictured it, doesn’t always work the way one might hope. Not only will you know this if you’ve ever tried mirror sticky note therapy, but you will know this is you’ve ever tried to help someone else edit their story.
Our cheerful “what if you look at it this way” suggestions often are met with resistance, annoyance, or worse. It’s a great way to get someone mad at you.
But it’s not hopeless.
In fact, I have a couple of sticky notes on my monitor right now. Because I do think change is possible. Just not necessarily the way we are sometimes inclined to go about it.
I have a theory, that our self-limiting stories trap emotional energy. Something happened in our lives that was too hard. And the whole experience becomes a tangle of thoughts and feelings that turn into a story in our minds. And the self-limiting ones are often full of invalidation – they are “I can’t” stories, or “I’m not enough” stories, a failure stories. Or maybe in includes an isolation story, an “I’m on my own story,” or a, “no one really cares anyway” story. The irony is that someone trying to helpfully edit the story can feel like just one more invalidation. Just more evidence that they *don’t* want to hear what you really feel. Even if that editor is ourselves. The desire to edit becomes one more piece of evidence that I or my feelings or my story are not okay, need to be changed, fixed or altered in some way. That I’m not okay.
Counterintuitively, often the best way to open up a limited story, the best way to go about loosening uncomfortable feelings, is to accept them exactly as they are. Not to get lost in them. Not to indulge in them. But to recognize them. Recognize the thinking, the story, and acknowledge it; recognize the energy, the feeling; and feel it.
Just… don’t stop there. Don’t get stuck there. Because there is something underneath. A larger truth, a greater wisdom, a larger compassion and the source of a larger story. A story that doesn’t try to invalidate the one you already have but opens up some doors and windows in it. Opens you up to new possibilities.
I recently flipped open a book by Glennon Doyle that struck me as a great illustration of how this can work.
In her book Untamed, Glennon describes her search to find herself. She had struggled with alcohol, with food, with parenting, and with a whole lot of limited, hopeless stories about herself and her life. And, oh yes, she’d just found out her husband was cheating on her. She didn’t know what to do. She actually found herself typing into google “What should I do if my husband is a cheater but also an amazing dad?”
Not surprisingly, she got countless conflicting answers, all based on different stories of who the responder thought Glennon was supposed to be as a wife or a mother.
She described herself as lost. Flailing, grasping for answers.
A few weeks later she received a card from a friend. “be still and know.” it said. Not, “Scour the internet and know.” Not “consult experts and know.” Nor did it say just follow your feelings or just stick to your old scripts and do that. It suggested a different approach: Just. Stop.
Glennon decided to try meditation. 10 minutes a day, trying to stop. She says the first 10 minute session felt like 10 hours. The only thing she seemed to “know” was that she was hungry and itchy and suddenly desperate to reorganize the pantry. The one thing that was clear was how uncomfortable it was to sit still with the conflicting stories and the feelings and just experience the energy inside her.
Yet, she said, after a few weeks, she began to feel herself dropping lower during each session. Eventually sinking deep enough to find a new level inside herself that she’d never known existed. A place of “knowing.”
And in that place, she said, when she posed a question about her life— she would sense a nudge. Guiding her toward the next precise thing, and then, when she silently acknowledged the nudge—it filled her, she said. The Knowing feels like warm liquid gold filling her veins.
And leading her in the direction of a new story, arising from a different, deeper place.
And the more consistently, bravely, and precisely she has followed the inner Knowing, even if at first it seemed illogical, she writes, the more precise and beautiful her outer life has become.
That all resonates for me. There’s something deeper to connect with. Underneath all the stories and emotions on the surface.
But for me, that step about recognizing the story as a story, then experiencing the energy it’s holding? That has to be done a few times. Depending on the story, a lot of time. 100 times, or 1000 times, or more. But the more I do it, the less the original story holds me, and the more I make room for something new. And once in a while, moving toward that new place does indeed feel like warm liquid gold.
Here’s the part of Glennon’s perspective that I particularly appreciate – which is that we don’t have to wait for an old story to disappear completely before we begin acting on the new one. This deeper knowing, this guidance, this larger, compassionate more beautiful story underneath everything – it’s always there.
And, as Glennon goes on to suggest, it has a direct line to our imagination. Another way to tap into that deeper truth and this greater beauty underneath it all is by engaging the imagination with a question, which is this: “what is the truest, most beautiful story you can imagine about about your life”?
She shares 3 stories of women who were struggling with their old stories, and where that question led them.
I want to end by sharing these three stories with you.
First is Clare, lawyer and daughter of an alcoholic who wrote to Glennon while still woozy from her nightly “take the edge off” glasses of wine. She wrote that she spends most of her time numb or foggy or ashamed. “G, I feel like I’m wasting my life,” she wrote. “What should I do?”
Then there’s Sasha who married a guy who is distant and cold, just like her father had been. Sasha spent most of her days hustling to earn her husband’s love, just like her mom had done to earn her dad’s. She wrote, “I’m so tired and lonely. What’s the right thing to do here?”
And then, Danielle, a thirty-four-year-old former kindergarten teacher. She spends her days and nights watching her seven-year-old die slowly in her arms, tortured by the same disease that killed her first son three years ago. Night and day, she sits by her son’s bedside—feeding him, singing to him, soothing him. “I’m broken, Glennon,” she wrote. “I don’t know what to do.”
Glennon asked each of them: “what is the truest, most beautiful story you can imagine about your life”?
Each of them replied.
Clare wrote a story about a woman who never abandoned herself, who faced life on life’s terms and was present for herself, her people, her life. She believed in that vision enough to begin therapy and to safely let rise to the surface all the pain she was trying to drown out with wine. Months later she wrote to say that her new way of being is harder than ever, but it’s the right kind of hard.
Sasha spent several evenings writing a story about the truest, most beautiful marriage she could imagine. She spent a week mustering the courage to send it to me because she was scared to let someone on the outside see what was on her inside. Eventually she printed it out and left it on her husband’s pillow. She was heartbroken when he didn’t mention it for three weeks. Then, one night, she found an invitation from him, asking her to go to a marriage retreat. They could both imagine something more beautiful, it turned out.
Danielle wrote back from her son’s hospital bedside after reflecting on the truest, most beautiful story about parenting she could imagine. She said this: “I’ve spent the past week considering your question. I can imagine a thousand easier stories about mothers and sons. I can think of a million happier ones. But I cannot imagine a single story truer or more beautiful than the heartbreaking one I’m living now, with my boys.” “Me neither,” Glennon wrote back. “Me neither.”
Let us tap into something deeper. Let’s conjure up, from the depths of our souls: The truest, most beautiful lives, families, or communities, one nudge at a time.
It might take us a lifetime, as Glennon notes in her book. Luckily, a lifetime is exactly how long we have.
May it start with us today.
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