Changing Our Stories

Listening to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell on Audible, he articulated something I’ve been thinking about recently:

“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem,” Gladwell said. “We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” 

This is obviously problematic for a lot of reasons, because when we just come up with explanations about things we know nothing about, they’ll almost certainly be wrong. That’s how racism, sexism, nationalism, and every other -ism dig their insidious roots into the soil of our minds and culture.

But our storytelling problem doesn’t only manifest itself in major social ills. After all, those -isms only become major issues when lots of individuals buy into the false stories they’re built upon.

And it’s at the individual level that we can change the way we tell stories to ourselves.

We automatically default to the story that the homeless guy on the street is lazy, a freeloader, an addict, a criminal, a danger – and nothing like the productive, contributing, hardworking, and upstanding citizen that we are.

But what if we flipped that story? What if we defaulted not to the story of how different he is from us, but how alike he is? How he is us? How would that change the story?

After all, we’re making the story up out of whole cloth. It can be anything we want (or allow) it to be.

So perhaps he becomes a hard-working guy who just managed to pay his bills to support the loving wife and little daughter — who look so much like our own — until he was laid off through no fault of his own when his company downsized. With a glowing reference from his recent employer, he embarked confidently on a job search, but could find nothing to match his previous income, which had been just enough to get by. So he took a lower-paying job. Then his wife found work, too. But even together – and with the added expense of childcare that their dual work schedules required – they still couldn’t make ends meet. Then he got injured on the job. With no insurance, the bills piled up. Then he got hooked on the pain pills the doctor gave him for his injury. And though – with the love and support of his family, and an incredible will – he kicked the habit, it was too late. They lost the house. They bounced from one progressively decrepit apartment to the next, hounded by bill collectors, until they were living in their car. And now, drowning in debt, no credit, unable to find a job, he sits on the street, begging for help from strangers so he can repair the now broken-down car around the corner where his wife and daughter sleep, so they can run the heater at night to chase away the cold.     

It’s just as good a story as the first. And probably a lot closer to the truth.

And while the first story is certainly more comfortable and convenient, the second comes with the capacity for compassion. And who knows where that might lead?

It takes a very conscious effort to recognize when we are telling ourselves convenient and comfortable stories. And an even greater effort to change the story. To personalize instead of otherize. But we have so many opportunities to practice.

We’re always the hero of our own stories. But that means there are a whole lot of bad guys and antagonists whose stories we can change if we choose to. From spouses and kids and in-laws to bosses and coworkers to homeless people, criminals, foreigners, and those of other races, genders, religions, and political persuasions.

We’ve assigned them all stories. Most of them based on little or nothing. Imagine the good it would do for us, for them, for the world if we just assigned them new ones.

We can do it. By embracing our problem with storytelling and choosing to make a change.

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