One of the most useful lessons I’ve learned over the years is that life is more about journeys than destinations. This may sound a bit cliched, but the fact is that research by psychologists like Barbara Fredrickson – who work in the relatively new field of Positive Psychology* – suggests that the happiest people are people who don’t think of happiness as a destination where they will come to rest, but rather a fleeting and enjoyable component of the more complex experience that is life. I was reminded of this idea recently when my friend Nick – the other author of this site – asked me to write about the events surrounding my experience with getting sober several years ago. This is a decidedly important part of my personal growth, so I was happy to oblige him; I knew I could re-purpose the material in a book I’m working on, and I figured it would give Nick some firsthand insight into the recovery process. So a few days later I handed over my “homework”, and Nick played a little switcheroo on me. He then said “Okay, now I want you to take this story, and re-write it in the form of a Hero’s Journey. Then he outlined the elements of a hero story, something I was well-acquainted with in another context, i.e., as a writer. Having been influenced as a youngster by books like Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero motif was a natural element of my storytelling. What I was not familiar with was the idea of taking one’s own personal story, identifying the hero elements, and then using that as a tool of personal development. I’ll let Nick expand on that in a future piece if he likes; in the short term, this exercise had another purpose for me. It reminded me of another tool I like to share in personal development, which is the idea that “everybody has a story”. This is such a fundamental aspect of life that I think we forget about the impact – both positive and negative – that our “story” can have on our growth and personal satisfaction. A person’s “story” is one of the most basic tools of talk therapy, and in the case of successful people, a thing that is crucial both to their inner self-talk and their external public persona.
So what’s your story? In my case, Nick’s request that I tell the story of my recovery as a “hero’s journey” made me aware of two things. One was that as important as this story was, it wasn’t my “hero’s journey”. And two, that in spite of having a clear idea of what my “real” story was, I wasn’t sure how to tell the story any more, and in fact, wasn’t sure if I really even wanted to take that book off the shelf at all! Let me explain. I experienced a LOT of death and loss around me as a youngster, as well as some sexual abuse experiences. This had a tremendous impact on my development, but not in ways that would be obvious to people I had just met. Often in my life, when meeting someone knew, the way things would play out would be that in the first moderately in-depth conversation that took place, they’d make a remark like “oh, you’re one of those people who’s always looking for some deeper meaning in things”, or something to that effect. If you’re a “survivor” type, you may be familiar with this response, and you’ll immediately understand the mild annoyance that a remark like this might engender. For a long time, my response to this harmless kind of remark would be to “tell my story”, at whatever pace the listener seemed able to stomach things. This either made them figuratively run in horror, or immediately bond much more deeply, either out of kinship, sympathy, or respect. So if the story was true, and people connected with it on some level, what was the problem? Well, the problem was that by “telling the story”, I was in a way perpetuating it. In spite of all my assumed self-examination and the evolution I had pursued in other ways, the profound effect of this seemingly simple aspect of our behavior had escaped me somehow.
So how did I become aware of this pattern, and what did I do about it? Well, I first recall it coming up around the time I got sober a few years ago, in a conversation with a woman I had just met who I thought I might be interested in getting more involved with. We were talking about ourselves the way people might as they start letting some barriers down, and I started to share some of my “old story”. Suddenly, I realized I was only doing this out of habit, and that I had a NEW story I’d rather tell. A story about being excited with my life and new things I was doing, and things I’d like to still do. I shared what was going on, and she quite simply said “Yeah, we all have a story don’t we? I wonder if maybe that’s one of the things that limit us?” We then had a really long discussion exploring the importance of “having a story” as a way to define ourselves, but how once you get the story outlined pretty well, you have probably also managed to freeze your growth in a small way. I decided around that time to stop telling my “old story”, and instead remain aware that I can write a NEW story. This had a compelling impact on my personal relationships. If you’re someone who has been through the more intense things that life throws our way – loss, violence, or random misfortunes – you may have become something of a survivor, and probably attract other people like this into your life. Many of my best friends are people who had an exceptional challenge thrown their way, and grew through it rather than being beaten down. But once I took this new view that I was “starting a new book”, I suddenly realized that even the most inspiring of these friends of mine still had little footnotes of their story kicking around. One friend, who is a brilliant writer, singer, mom, and amateur athlete, will still randomly toss out a joke about her sister that sexually abused her. Another friend, who is a remarkably talented songwriter and performer, amazingly takes what are actually positive parts of his story – his previous successes in the music industry – to perpetuate a failure to evolve!
As a friend, I have no choice but to call these friends out on this, usually with some positive result. So now I’m going to call YOU out:
What’s your story?
Does your story limit you?
Does your story have useful lessons in it?
What parts of your story can you put on the shelf as an informative chapter?
What’s your NEW story?
There are lots of ways to explore these issues, and the one my friend Nick shared – the “Hero’s Journey” – is just one. The simplest way is to simply be honest with yourself and identify the themes you seem to repeat as part of how you explain yourself, see which ones may need some resolution, finish the chapter, and start a new one. If you’re living and breathing, you haven’t finished the book! Start the next chapter RIGHT NOW, it’s as easy as putting your old book on the shelf and starting a new one.
* Oddly, psychology has historically focused on aberrant behavior rather than healthy behavior. Barbara Fredrickson is one of the better known and respected psychologists who study positivism. Her books like Positivity: The 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life can give you some actionable methods for re-writing your story.