Western culture has a habit. Lots of them actually. My focus here is our felt need to have a back story for – well, everything. This often extends to ourselves and our daily lives. We listen to what others say about us, combine that with what we think we want our lives to look like, or what we think we stand for, and voila – we end up with a story, often with a side of low self-esteem and unreasonable expectations.
And that’s where I want to pick up the story (pun fully intended). First things first, understand that these stories often serve a valid purpose. They can give us the motivation we need to keep going when things get difficult. They can smooth over the bumps in life. However, they can also lead us astray – to a false sense of self that’s based on the story and not on who we truly are.
The tricky part is recognizing when you start telling such a story, then being able to separate your actual, present self from the version of yourself that is enacting your narrative. As a starting point, realize that you’re constructing the story around past events. You’re telling yourself, “something like this happened once, and here’s how I handled it.” This is often followed by a critical assessment of how you handled it and how your narrative self failed in some way.
This is not who you are. This is an event from your past. Your present self has learned from that past event and is attempting to translate what happened and make it relevant to the present. Let go of the story and allow yourself to live now.
So how to recognize that moment when you start living to your story, instead of your life?
“Nothing happens for a reason, but everything that happens has purpose.”
– Megan Hollingsworth
Saying that an event happened for a reason shifts accountability (blame) to something that happened before that event – and since that precipitating event is in the past, there’s nothing that can be done. This conveniently shifts any impetus to take action off Present you, since all you can affect is now.
However, saying that “everything that happens has purpose,” That’s a different story (again with the puns). Now you’re saying that the event happened in order to affect something that hasn’t happened yet. Now the focus is on the future, something that your actions in the present can certainly impact. Suddenly, your future is firmly in your hands, and rests on what you do now, in the present – in reaction to the event in question.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
This follows from the first quote, and Epictetus’ words ring true today – two thousand years after he said them. Granted, he was a Stoic philosopher who believed that all external events happen as a result of fate and should be accepted without fuss. I’m not advocating that extreme a view, I just want to take it far enough to adopt an outsider’s view of events in order to learn from them and carry that lesson forward with you.
If you can start looking at things with this eye, imagine the changes you can affect. Instead of saying, “why did that happen to me?” you’re saying, “what can I do with this right now to affect my future positively.” You’ve just taken the negative experience of dwelling on the why and turned it into the positive experience of figuring out the how, how to use what you just learned.