The stories we tell ourselves, in order to live?


Jacarandas (Photo credit: edcarsi)

The experience of our life floats up in the washtub as a narrative. Joan Didion writes in her The White Album, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ This is the premise behind self help literature and cognitive behavioural therapy: that we can change our behaviour by changing our thoughts or our relationship to our thoughts, by rewriting our stories or our relationship to our stories.

But if I told myself my life is understood by myself as a narrative, I’m also telling myself another story. A narrative is no less true or powerful because it’s just a story, it already exists and I’ve just given it a name.

I think of Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain, because to a degree, the stories we tell ourselves—our interpretation of the ‘shifting phantasmagoria’—well up from and respond to unconscious places in our brain that ‘respond to what it sees’. So that if ‘something doesn’t feel right’ about a person, for example, we’ll think up perfectly logical reasoning as to why we don’t like them, although this bias may not have arisen from this intellectual place at all.

When I think about the way I sometimes feel, which is scattered, dissolute, uncertain, defensive, I can guess where this feeling comes from, but really that’s after it arises, working haphazardly backwards to the root.

I picture myself feeling similarly, but several years ago. The difference is that when I see myself then, I see myself holding those feelings, but I am complete, uncomfortable but without dissolution. I see myself whole. And if I feel this way in the present, it is with a magnifier, without accounting for everything else, the streams in the river and the past and future. William Faulkner wrote ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

The stories we tell ourselves about the world are a part of the shifting phantasmagoria itself. It must be true that they can be changed through conscious effort, such as meditation, mantras, therapy. But what are the stories? And where do they end and the actual experience begins?


Outside the cathedral yesterday vendors sold woven palm fronts and bunches of herbs.

The moon was rising, almost full, into the still-light horizon, and the jacaranda was blue as night.


The girl in the movie


I say this neutrally, my flight instinct is it’s safer to be nice than to be happy. And what is to be happy? I’ve thought of it as the immensity of the ocean, after this talk by Matthieu Ricard called The Habits of Happiness. The ocean is deep and substantial and watery. A wave breaks on the shore, there is a storm on the open sea or brilliant sun, but the depth is still there, unchanged and indisputable. Ricard says that happiness is a state of wellbeing and a deep sense of serenity that pervades and underlies all emotional states and can only be a state of being.

I listened to the last talk of the Winter Happiness Summit. Robert Holden said, not verbatim quotes: Happiness is not your state of mind or a positive attitude. Happiness is you. Your essence, unconditional self. Your true nature. The ego is so busy searching that we’ve forgotten we’re already happy…We need to tune into something we already have.

He also said: We’re already choosing how happy we’re going to be, the choice is unconscious and aligned with your story about how much happiness is possible and how much is too good to be true. We may need to make that point many times, and turn to an outside source like God, meditation, music to decide.

I watched a movie with the aunt called Ruby Sparks. The character Calvin, a writer, falls in love with a woman he’s created. She wears coloured tights and dresses, she’s had a life with interesting men, and even though sometimes she’s sad, she’s also happy. She’s attune with her deeper nature. Or is she? Calvin realises he can change her by writing it, and then she disappears when he writes that she leaves him and is free.

Still, from now on I wanted to be her. And the best part is that she’s in a movie so none of it would be real: just the storm and sunshine on the surface of the sea, and the dresses and the smile. (And according to my research, obviously I also want to claim the traits I admire in her which are those I am not nurturing in myself.)

Robert Holden also says searching is a ‘denial of happiness’. Maybe it is, because when I reflect on my days I see hundreds of proofs that left me cold. A red rose in the guest room smells so sweet, water gushing from a fountain, four men climbing a pole, the sun, someone giving me their cat to hold. There are other things that can make life difficult, like shyness, but mixed with this is simply what has happened, which can only be a violent storm on the ocean. Storms pass and a taste of salt is my own.