What’s your story?
I’m a bit of a compulsive people watcher and what amuses me the most is the random snippets of conversation you overhear in the street or in cafés and so on. On Saturday, walking through Oxford, I caught this gem: “…..And my legs were full of lactic acid….” Once I’d finished giggling enough to explain to my companions what I was laughing at, I started speculating about what was behind that remark. We went off at all sorts of tangents and by the time we got home, the story in my head had taken on epic proportions of utter silliness. It happens in pubs and railway stations and bus stops: I hear a little snatch of a tale and I make the rest up.
But real stories are a different matter.
Real stories are the ones we tell about ourselves and our lives and I am of the opinion that these are the stories that create and sustain the world. The wonderful film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (by Terry Gilliam )and featuring some of the world’s finest actors) has this as it’s basic premise, that stories are what keep the world going.
I’m not talking about anything mystical (well not very) but rather about the fact that memory is created more strongly by repetition and by the creation of a narrative about events, so that the memory is strengthened by the telling and relationships are formed and reinforced by the sharing of personal stories. There’s a growing awareness that good relationships(whether with a romantic partner or friends or family) are enhanced by the bringing of new experiences into that forum. The inevitable question, “How was your day, honey?” is so often a formality. We brush it off, as unimportant and move on to anaesthetising our brains with TV or whatever anodyne does it for you and then wonder why we never seem to talk any more.
Not only is personal story telling important to relationships, it’s also vital for our mental health. It’s not just the telling either. Over the years I have seen a fair number of mental health practitioners, from counsellors to consultant psychiatrists and the ones I felt were most on the button were the ones who encouraged me to tell them my story. But it’s not just about having told it, it’s about the reaction. The questions, the analysis of events and of motives and results are just as important. It’s just as much about the listener as the teller of the story. Because the story changes ever so subtly when the listener asks the right question. “Do you think that’s what he meant to do?” makes you review your memory and search it for more clues to the puzzle. “How did that make you feel? How do you feel now?” bring you to look again at the strength of a painful memory.
It’s also probably why bloggers release their work for others to read; the insights of others can shed vital light on our stories. It’s not about egotism, as such, but about seeking the whys of our lives. Knowing someone else has read our thoughts, our stories, can take some of the sting away from past hurts; sharing our stories brings out our common humanity and forges bonds of understanding between people.
So it’s a natural progression when someone has hurt us, and we cannot understand why, to start to ask, “What’s their story?” and if it’s not possible to actually find out from them, then to improvise possible reasons why. To some degree this is what psychology is about, the need to understand someone’s back story, their whys. I’m usually very surprised to discover that my improvised version of someone’s back story is often very close to their real story, but by then, it’s not usually a problem. If I can find a way to explain and understand hurtful behaviour, then I can forgive and move on more readily.
German philosopher Goethe once wrote, “That which we understand, we do not blame,” and I don’t think I can improve on his words at all.
So, each day, with the people you meet, the ones you pass in the street, the ones you work with and the people (especially these ones) who rub you up the wrong way, just look at them and ask silently, “What’s your story?”
You never know, one day they might actually tell you it.