There are few things that engage the human psyche more completely than a good story, well told. Whether it’s the story we tell about ourselves or about others; the one about our relationships or our past; our internal story about the world and how magical or doomed we believe it is; or the multiple and ever-expanding stories about our collective history, our ancestors or God…our appetite and capacity for story creation and recreation seems universal and insatiable.
Ideas that seem too difficult, obscure, unpalatable or uninteresting can be made simple, illuminating, engaging and satisfying when wrapped up in the enticing package of a good story. Everyday lives that feel immensely challenging, too rooted in ‘the real world’ or spirit-sapping in the physical, mental and emotional demands that they place on us, can be softened into tolerance with the comfort of a good tale. And each of us is, in fact, a walking, talking, acting and reacting compilation of the stories that we’ve accumulated and progressively placed our faith in, during the course of our lives.
Every encounter and relationship that we’ve ever had carries the seed of a story within it, and we are key characters in determining whether those stories will have a happy or tragic end. To be a human being is to be a lover and co-creator of stories, whether we like it or not, and our only free choice seems to be in the sort of stories that we choose to co-create.
We can tell ourselves that we’re above all that, that we live in the hard-nosed, real and logical world or – at the other end of the spectrum – that we have found enough enlightenment to recognise that everything is illusion and that we’re enlightened enough ourselves not to fall into the ‘story-telling trap’. But the truth is that history, our own dreams and fantasies, or any overheard conversation about a deeply personal matter, will all prove the lie to these self-professed beliefs. To be a human is to be a creator, sustainer, teller, reteller and liver of all the stories we carry inside us, and which shape our actions and our beliefs.
My personal storybook took an unexpectedly enjoyable turn this week, when I was invited by my brother to make Facebook posts of 7 black & white photos, on 7 consecutive days, depicting my everyday life with no additional explanation or comments. My initial reaction was “I like the fact that you asked me, but I don’t take part in “these sort of nomination challenges” because they don’t fit with my internal image of who I believe I am…my story I tell myself! But then the plot thickened…
My niece, who I love dearly, added a little ‘Love’ reaction to my brother’s invitation…and that set me thinking. My Facebook posts tend to be ‘positively-inspiring’, ‘thought-provoking’ or ‘spiritually-uplifting’ in nature and focus, with the odd ‘personal update with photos’ sprinkled in for good measure. But here was Sally telling me (in my own version of this particular story) “I’d love to see more of your everyday life”. So my internal dialogue of “I don’t do this sort of thing” became “I’ll do this one ‘viral Facebook challenge’ but I won’t nominate anyone else…because I don’t believe in these challenges in principle”.
My first post was of a picture that I have pinned up in my current home; a Spanish motivational message, printed on a paper napkin, that I made a cardboard frame for and carry with me to put up wherever I find myself.
I have various motivational and uplifting sayings pinned up around my current home so, I thought rather cleverly, I’d post a different photo of these each day as a way of continuing to share positive messages and maintain my principle of ‘not really doing these Facebook chain-reaction challenges’.
But, as I wandered around that day doing different things, two realisations slowly worked their way into my consciousness. The first was “That would make a good picture of what I’m seeing today!” and the second was “If you’re not going to post photos of what you’re actually seeing and doing, what are you really sharing of yourself and what’s the point in taking part?” So Day 2 wasn’t a motivational message, it was a photo of the uplifting and naturally-beautiful coastline of Fuerteventura, made all the more striking for being in black & white.
By Day 3 I realised, with surprise, that I rather enjoyed taking part in this social media exercise and also that I enjoyed seeing the photos of friends’ lives, with no explanations. The experience of seeing what they’d chosen to share, admiring the creative photos that some had selected and adding a little more information to ‘my story of each of these people that I know’ were all things that gave me great, and unexpected, pleasure. So my thinking about the exercise changed again into “Well, if it’s given me this much pleasure it might give other people pleasure too so, with a little tweeking of the wording (inviting some friends to take part, rather than challenging them), my Day 3 picture included an invitation to someone else to take part; as did each subsequent day after that.
And the whole experience reminded me of things that I’ve already realised in the past but, somehow, had forgotten again. Most importantly, that when I stop telling myself who I believe I am, when I stop striving to live in line with my principles and just allow myself to be, that a peaceful sense of ease descends on me and brings with it the easy joy and pleasure that comes from little, deeply-human things. I was reminded that I feel and embody genuine love for myself and others when I think, feel and act from a place of openness, gentleness, non-judgement, curiosity and ease. And, as this particular ‘windmill in my mind’ began turning again, I also remembered something about the Inuit culture and belief, which a close friend once explained to me as we walked the Camino de Santiago together. A belief best explained in the following three words…
Isuma-tu is a sense a deeper knowing which, when people tune into it repeatedly, allows them to become: Isumatu, meaning skilful storytellers who, through their continuous story-telling, eventually grow to become: Isumataq; people capable of creating a safe space for others to share their own stories, without feeling judged
It is this lack of judgment, this gentle acceptance by another, that allows people to feel the same gentle acceptance for themselves and, feeling it, they are empowered to connect to their own deeper sense of knowing; their own Isuma-tu. And so the cycle of personal story-telling, acceptance and growth continues and is passed on, from person to person: the never-ending story which helps each one to grow in compassion and understanding.
We are meaning-making beings and, one of the ways we instinctively make meaning, is through the telling of our individual stories. We not only have ‘our own Story’ about our past, our present and the potential of our future, stories are the universal way in which we decode and try to make sense of almost everything in the world around us. Far from distracting us from other things, they can be a non-threatening way of looking at the most difficult and challenging aspects of life and human relationship, and finding new ways to relate to them and to make sense of them.
Sometimes we use historical stories, from our own lives or from our collective human experience; sometimes we use the ‘current accepted story’ of our society, or of our secular or religious communities; and sometimes we use fictional, fantastical or mythical stories, that connect to something deeper within us, the imagination that lies within.
Our minds are not the enemy, they are an immensely powerful creative gift and their fuel is the imagination. Our individual imaginations are one of the ways that God empowers us to embody the force of creation within our lives and to share the creative power of brotherly love. We can allow that creative force to enslave us, by repeatedly telling ourselves belittling stories about ourselves (or by allowing others to do so), or we can embrace the divine gift that our imaginations represent, by honouring them and using them to create our own Life-enhancing stories, and encouraging others to do the same.
When I allow myself to be human, when I take pleasure and joy from little things, when I think, feel and act from a place of gentleness, non-judgement and ease, these are the times when I feel I am writing and sharing a worthwhile, meaning-filled story of myself. A never-ending story of discovery, learning, acceptance, love, gradual adjustment and growing inner peace. And, in repeatedly returning to this realisation and trying to embody it day-by-day, I am also trying to create a small space where others might feel moved to do the same…
Integrate, connect, draw a line between your mind, your body and your heart. For me it’s about telling a story and those are the characters. We show up each day and we write each chapter, each page, each sentence by integrating those three things: our Mind, our Body and our Heart.
Namaste”– Adriene Mishler