The Power of Stories

How the ones we tell ourselves shape our perception of others.

What do you see first when you look at someone? Do you notice someone’s clothes, their smile, the sound of their voice? Are you more aware of body contours or the ‘refugees welcome’ badge? The brand of their phone or the name of the band on their T-shirt?

If I’m in the airport, I notice the origin of passports. Reds, burnt orange, and emerald greens catch my eye in the city. I notice elbow length hair and vintage leather handbags. I watch carefully how men watch women and how they respond. Someone whistling to himself/herself/themselves always makes me feel hopeful. Saxophone and violin played in reverberant public spaces always get a dollar. Freckles remind me of my own.  How would I write about those people if they were characters in my book? If I don’t know them, do the things I choose to write about actually just represent me?

I used to wonder why no matter where I am in the world, people seem compelled to tell me their story. Was it what I was wearing, the way I looked at them? Until it dawned on me. I see people as stories. I see the seed of someone’s story in the way they laugh, look into each other’s eyes, adjust their coat or clutch their umbrella. And when I look at people as unknown stories worthy of being heard, funnily enough, I end up hearing them. Everyone’s story I’ve listened to is special and unique. Some were funny, some were heartbreaking, some were long-winded, seemingly exaggerated and some of them subtly told a story concealed behind the chosen words.

When you look at people walking towards you, do you think we ever actually see them? Or do they just feel like an oncoming wave of navy and suit pants or colours and currents of sound and presence as they pass? I wonder what other people notice about strangers that catch their eye. I’ve come to the conclusion what we notice and pay attention to, usually, says a lot more about us than the people in our gaze.

Words are powerful. When used well, they have the power to heal, transform, connect, and develop our views about ourselves and the world. It takes just a moment to use words to make another feel significant or worthless. When we tell our stories with words that feel true to us, we have the opportunity to review our own personal narrative and deepen the connection to ourselves and those around us. The words that form the stories we tell others, come from the words and the stories we don’t tell others (sometimes ourselves). When we allow vulnerability in sharing with others, we can discover greater strength to be the authors of our own lives. Knowing the kinds of narratives we tell ourselves about the world, can inspire us to rewrite our story to better serve our dreams, relationships, and life.

Storytelling is at the root of every culture, the stories themselves flow through lineages of ancestors to the people we are today, wherever we exist in the world. I believe stories come to us via multiple channels and shape the way we see the world. There are narratives we all know, from fairy tales, dreams, political propaganda, media trends to our childhood bedtime story; They make history, preserve history, and change history. Sometimes we find someone who might even know our personal story so well it’s spooky. It seems like there could be a thread of similarity in the myths that we learn about being human, that knows no race, culture, gender or class. But at the core of it, I write to understand the equilibrium between the stories we tell ourselves that shape our global, social narratives, and the social narratives that determine the stories we claim as our own. Knowing which stories function as the unconscious control panel for my conscious life fascinates me simply beyond self-discovery.

Anais Nin describes in her book ‘In Favor of the Sensitive Man and other essays’ stress we have to consider our own problems with how we relate to the world in order to effectively create solutions for our humanitarian and ecological challenges. Otherwise, our burdens are just “added to the collective overburdened majority”. Stories in all their facets encourage a more human relationship with each other, which proves powerful in dealing with injustice, prejudice, and interests of power. Like Nin, I believe that “lasting revolution comes from deep changes in ourselves which influence our collective life”.

I’m a voracious reader but I also love podcasts. Invisibilia is a great example of creative journalism, and in Season 3, the hosts investigated the nature of emotions and reality. For those that don’t know it already, it’s a podcast that examines the invisible forces behind human nature. Their inquiry into emotion was compelling. The point made was that we think that all humans understand a few primary emotions (fear, sadness, anger, happiness etc.). However, it’s not the case. Some cultures have language for emotions others don’t and as emotion is a subjective experience, shaped by personal experiences and cultural narratives, we can’t say there are a set of ‘standard’ human emotions. Furthermore, emotions are not just something that happens to us. In a way, we choose them, sometimes consciously, but more often than not, we don’t. Emotions are the symptom of concepts, which are based on the limited sensory information we obtain and largely on the assumptions of meaning we put on that information. Our brains are constantly aware of how we feel, but our bodily sensations are rudimental. Our brain perceives comfort, pleasure, discomfort, pain. It’s up to our mind to make up a story about why we feel that way, in order to categorize sensory information and make meaning. Where do we get those stories from? When you see someone, do you think we actually see them for who they are, or do we only see stories we have made up and learned about the world?

If you look at someone and your thoughts jump too quickly to a story about them, and your mind wanders to admiration, defensiveness, envy, pity, success, advice, self-depreciation, irritation (the list goes on). Pause. Just for a moment. Let your words become the markers you follow until you find the stories you unconsciously tell yourself about the world. Firstly question who’s actually writing that story in your mind and whether your assumptions would fit the kind of story that person would write about themselves. Do you think they stage themselves as a character that feeds off being sexually admired by strangers or is actually just an attention seeker or wants to be pitied for wearing their pajama pants to the supermarket? Maybe not. You might never know, without loosening the reins on your curiosity and being open for a different narrative than the one you might like best.

I had to train my curiosity. No really. At first, I found that when I thought I was curious I was actually just really enthusiastic to judge someone that stood out to me, to label them with my favorite, self-affirming story labels. It’s surprisingly difficult to see people as unknown stories before you think of them as weird, sexy or boring or any other label we can too quickly apply to each other.  Try and see if you can see someone them from their story, not yours. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

 

Anais, Nin (1976): In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays, MacMillan Publishing pg.28-29

Rosin. H, Miller L. Spiegel, A (2017) Invisibilia podcast, Season 3, Episode 1, produced by NPR

 

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