After my husband’s brain injury, I became fascinated with the workings of the brain and the mind (not the same thing, remember) and read a great deal about them. When I went to Seattle some years later to speak at the Washington State Traumatic Brain Injury Conference, I took along a book with a most intriguing title: Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD. As I sat reading it over dinner in the hotel restaurant, one sentence instantly struck me with almost physical force: “Everything is story, including our identities, our selves, our meanings and purposes, our theories about the world.”
Everything is story. Wow. Yes. I knew that to be true, all the way down to my bones. In that instant, my life changed. This was the beginning of my path to seeing the world in a new way.
As Dr. Mehl-Madrona explains in detail, our brains are “organs of story, changing to match the needs of their environment, and specialized to understand story, store story, recall story, and tell story.” In fact, our brains’ story-making abilities are what make us human. We can’t help but use story to create our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world—our thoughts, in other words—create our experience of reality. In a larger way, our individual stories blend together to create cultural and social stories, like economics, religion, gender concepts, politics, and much more.
One simple example: Say you attempt something that means a great deal to you, like starting a new business or learning French cooking. However, you cannot make that dream come true. Your business fails or your Duck à l’Orange ends up tasting like road kill. At which time you could tell yourself, “I’m such a loser. Nothing ever works out for me. I quit!” and give up. Or you could take another direction: “Well, that didn’t work too well. But I bet there are other ways to reach my goal, and I’m going to find the way that does work.” And then you start again.
Same circumstance, different story—different experience of reality. We all do this all the time. It’s natural and automatic for our brains to create these stories, using our past experiences to cook up stories about new ones. The events of our lives are real, yes, but the stories we invent about them create our experience of reality, including our physical and emotional state. It is this ongoing, constant, mostly unconscious process that makes each one of us a Living, Breathing Story.
What’s exciting to me about “everything is story” as it applies to each one of us is that when we give ourselves permission to honestly explore our personal Story, we can discover ways to change it in positive, life-enhancing directions. We are always capable of positive change.
FOR YOUR JOURNAL
What is a story you tell yourself about you—one so ingrained that you believe it to be true? Whatever you choose, do not criticize or judge yourself for believing it. Simply write for at least 15-20 minutes, describing the story and how it makes you feel to believe it. If you know how it got started, write about that too.