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.