The Unintended Consequences of Storying Ourselves

Have you ever reread something, say a novel, a poem, or a quote, and to your surprise you discovered a completely different meaning? It’s a strange experience, and one I’ve been having daily.

For example, I once thought I understood the American filmmaker George Lucas when he said:

And I was sure I knew what the British author John le Carré meant by this:

And then there’s this from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which I could never fully wrap my head around until recently:

So what changed? How did those phrases take on new meaning for me? Simply put, it came from a shift in consciousness. What many refer to as “an awakening.” But it didn’t happen as you’re probably imagining, like during a silent retreat or triggered by some dramatic life event.

Instead, it happened when I heard myself utter five simple words:

Five words, which in an instant, caused my consciousness to shift to a completely different reality.

When it happened, I felt disoriented, like the room was slowly rotating. And then, just like that it hit me. Shakespeare was right!

Arguably his most famous line, in its deepest sense, and it had been hiding in plain sight all along.

What I realized in that moment was that this was not just some amusing analogy. Shakespeare’s profound observation forms the basis of our entire culture. We live in a shared fiction — a drama-filled, antagonistic worldview — that underpins the entire way we perceive, feel, think, act, and relate — to each other and to the Earth. Indeed, all the world IS a stage, and all the men and women ARE merely players.

Looking back, it makes perfect sense why, and when, the insight struck me. I was deep into the process of writing a movie screenplay — creating my own stage and players — diligently following storytelling convention. At one point in the process the plot stalled, and so my cowriter suggested that one of our fictional characters, Phil, do something outrageous to create more conflict and drama.

And THAT’s when it happened!

My nervous system was triggered. I had a viscerally negative reaction to her suggestion, because what she suggested was completely out of character for the character, Phil. I blurted, “Phil would never do… that!” I may have even thrown in an f-word or two. But here’s what happened next, and it was really strange, and powerful.

Those words reverberated in my head, like an echo. “Phil would never do THAT!” And I found myself transported outside of my body and away from the conversation, looking back at myself saying those words. And I thought, “What the hell does that even mean? Phil doesn’t exist! I made him up and so I can make him do anything I want him to do.”

But I couldn’t, because it didn’t “feel” right to me. In my gut. It didn’t feel right, because we had spent close to a year creating a detailed backstory of Phil — his personal history — which defined his identity and personality. And I knew that if we kept him, and the other characters, consistent and coherent in the story we had scripted, the audience would find them believable. And as a result, they would accept them.

That’s how writers create characters, and it’s EXACTLY what happens to all of us, in real life. Our personal histories and habits create our ideas (or stories) of us — character roles that we take on and who people believe us to be. And WE stay consistent and coherent in those roles, so that the people around us accept us and stay lost in those made up stories. And, as a result, we get lost in them as well and become MERE players.

So, if I couldn’t make a fictional character, and one I invented, do something “out of character,” because it didn’t “feel” right, imagine how powerfully hypnotic the stories we create about ourselves and our world are… to us and to others.

That insight blew my mind. I saw, in that strange moment, that living within this story paradigm as scripted characters not only affects our perception and experiences of the world, it drastically limits our potential to live a creative, expansive and loving life.

Yes, human beings think in stories, which is not a problem, in and of itself. It’s how we learn and form most of our theories, judgments and beliefs. Our brains have been wired to understand complex information through narrative.

The problem is that we have internalized that evolutionary, story-creating paradigm and projected it onto ourselves and our lives, as if we were central characters in a movie.

We have categorically storied ourselves — and others — and that largely, unconscious process has conditioned OUR feelings. And, as a result, it has oriented our thinking and decision-making, and in three very powerful and limiting ways:

1. Towards survival

“We are all living in cages with the door wide open.”

2. Towards conflict

“‘The cat sat on the mat’” is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”

3. Towards hope

“In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments.”

Survival, conflict and hope: The unintended consequences of storying ourselves.

Let me share three simple parables to illustrate these consequences, and our hypnotic and tedious way of being.

The Eagle and the Chickens, The Fox and the Grapes, and The Travelers and the Sea.

So first, The Eagle and the Chickens.

A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And sometimes he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.

Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who is that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth — we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.

Our personal stories serve as a protective cage, a defense mechanism and social survival strategy. Like the eagle who lived as a chicken, we take on roles based on who we’ve been conditioned to believe we are by the people around us. And those made up stories are ritualized through beliefs and behaviors that keep us, and everyone else, lost in them. They serve to regulate our nervous systems, keeping us calm and hypnotized and solidifying those identities. Just like with me and my feelings-driven decision to keep Phil in his made-up role.

If that eagle did something out of character, like let out an unfamiliar screech or climb up on a roof and spread its majestic wings, anxiety would flood its nervous system exacerbated by the other chickens’ confusion and concerned clucking. And for that reason — namely, to eliminate those anxious feelings and the clucking of our peers — maintaining the coherence of our stories and fulfilling our roles becomes more important to us than the quality of our lives. It’s why, to most of us, happiness is NOT about soaring. It’s about remaining grounded and comfortable. And it’s why, paradoxically, most of us are happy being, generally, unhappy.

The next story orientation is about conflict, as revealed by the parable of The Fox and The Grapes.

In Aesop’s fable, a fox spied a bunch of ripe, juicy grapes hanging from a vine high on a tree branch, and so he had to jump for it. He tried again and again, but kept coming up short. Finally, he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust. “What a fool I am,” he said. “Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes.” And off he walked, scornfully.

Personal narratives cast us, like the fox, as the central characters in simple accounts of things happening… to us! When we’re absorbed in our stories, we’re not in touch with the fullness and complexity of reality. Instead, we only see what is significant and useful to us in each moment. And anything that interrupts our story — our beliefs and desires — is viewed as an obstacle. Something to overcome. An antagonist. Sour grapes! We walk around creating fictitious judgments of everything in our lives, by design.

The partner who left us? Sour grapes. The boss who disagrees with our ideas? Sour grapes. The person in the express line with one too many items in their shopping cart. Sour grapes. As the comedian George Carlin once noted,

Sour grapes.

The final orientation of living in a personal story is an orientation towards hope. Like the story of The Travelers and The Sea.

Two Travelers were walking along the seashore. Far out they saw something riding on the waves. “Look,” said one, “a great ship rides in from distant lands, bearing rich treasures!” The object they saw came ever nearer the shore. “No,” said the other, “that is not a treasure ship. That is some fisherman’s skiff, with the day’s catch of savory fish.”

Still, the object came nearer. The waves washed it up on shore. “It is a chest of gold lost from some wreck,” they cried. Both Travelers rushed to the beach, but there they found nothing but a water-soaked log. And one of them said to his companion, “We have waited for no purpose, for after all there is nothing to see but a load of wood.”

Our personal narratives create a narrow and limiting experience, and a delusional hope in “happily ever after.” “Happily ever after” is when the treasure chest finally washes up on our shore. When all of the issues in our life are resolved and we can finally relax, be our authentic selves, and do what we really want to do. And so, like the two travelers, we sit with our present circumstances and scan the horizon in front of us, waiting for that one special person, job, technology, or piece of information to guide us, or for conditions to be just right.

This storied idea makes life feel like something is missing and that we’re on a journey to attain it — to learn something, get somewhere, or become someone. What’s happening, right now, is never truly relevant or good enough, because we’re on a never-ending journey to arrive somewhere better, which seduces us to endure painful cycles of hesitation and indecision… to “prolong our torments” and postpone truly living.

This idea of “Happily ever after”—of a better life, somewhere on the horizon—fascinates us more than the actual experience of living. And so we create jobs and work environments that are inequitable and which most people dislike. A democracy that exploits the forces of hatred and fear and pits friends and family against each other. And an epidemic of addiction, stress, anxiety and depression.

Stories that got us here, as a species, but that will never get us there — to an exciting, loving and healthy life. They can’t, because they weren’t meant for us, in our modern, interconnected and dynamic world. They were created by primitive people, to help them survive, and for mere characters like Phil, to keep them safely in their roles.

“Phil would never do that,” because Phil is a fictional character in a static story. An abstract causal chain of events designed to create conflict and drama, and defined by a fictional past and fantasy future. And everything and everyone around him are simply props, antagonists or supporting characters — not real, all made up. Separate entities to be used, tolerated or overcome on his delusional way to happily-ever-after.

And Phil’s okay with that, because he doesn’t have a choice. But you are NOT like Phil. You are not a character in a story written by anyone, controlled by anyone, or defined by an imaginary past.

Screw the other chickens, be an eagle if you feel like flying. Don’t judge the grapes if you can’t reach them. They have nothing to do with you. And give up hope. The treasure chest is an illusion. Without giving up the idea that there’s somewhere better to be than right now, and that there’s someONE better to be than who you really are, you will never soar… or find true connection and joy.

Jesus said,

And now I see what HE meant! Because young children do not see themselves as the protagonist in a self-obsessed narrative. They don’t view life through the distorted lens of identity, conflict and hope. Theirs is a wild and fascinating world of compassion and connection, enthusiasm and imagination.

So let’s stop storying ourselves and become like children again. Let’s come alive, rediscover our true and deepest selves, and radiate love and possibility into the world.

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Author of “The Business of Belief” and creator of “I am Keats.” TEDx talk: