image from wikipedia, creative commons CC-BY-2.0
Relax, no, I’m not suffering from a terminal illness, or contemplating suicide, or stopping blogging. What I’m doing is looking critically at the Story of Me, and acknowledging that it is just that — a story, a creative fiction, an invention.
I’m doing so because I realize that over the decades I’ve become pretty attached to, and pretty invested in, this story. I tell it in my bio, I tell it to new people I meet (often in the hopes they’ll be impressed), and I tell it to myself. I’ve realized that I am not my ‘self’, my identity, and it’s time to let go of the story that keeps me clinging to it.
Here are the major elements of this story, in roughly chronological order, and my debunking of them:
- Childhood and early adulthood: This is a story of blissful pre-school years just ‘being’, the 11-year trauma after entering the cruel and awful school system, the liberation of one year of unschooling (and flower power and smash-the-system activism and first real love) after that, and then the crushing disappointment and depression of university and the work world.
It’s an interesting, heartfelt story, but I really have no idea if any of it is really true. It is likely just an invention in hindsight to try to fit the facts and make ‘me’ look valiant. I remember some times, mostly in early childhood, that seemed serenely happy, and being unhappy and often depressed much of my school life and work life. But no more than most others, I suspect. Triggers are supposed to stem from childhood trauma and I’ve had my share of bad moments, but I don’t remember much, really, and have no idea if I was really traumatized. Mostly I was just bewildered, unable to make sense of anything, muddling my way through, and quite fearful and socially anxious as a result.
- Career years: This is a story of successfully fighting my way up through and around the obstacles of the work world, a long and stabilizing marriage, finding a purpose both as a parent and as an advisor and ideator to entrepreneurs, starting a blog, surviving a horrific illness, downsizing my career, writing a book, and finally retiring.
This story is pretty heavily embellished. In retrospect my work career, like those of just about everyone I know, was pretty much a waste of everyone’s time. I was not a particularly competent spouse or parent. I got lucky a lot. Same synopsis: Mostly I was just bewildered, unable to make sense of anything, muddling my way through, and quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. My illness caused me to wake up somewhat to my obliviousness to life. My blog has been an enjoyable hobby, but it if was all suddenly lost, I really wouldn’t, now, be too upset. I’ve written nothing outstanding or particularly important, novel or insightful. My book was likewise fun to write but, in the end, unsuccessful, full of good ideas that are really hard to implement.
- Retirement years: This is a story of regrouping, introspection, self-knowledge, studying human nature and how the world really works, regretting my generation’s failure to realize its ideals and the resulting ever-accelerating desolation of our world past the point of no return, acceptance that we’re all doing our best, finding new loves, rethinking my purpose, volunteer work, and most recently exploring the nature of the self.
This story is overly precise, significantly exaggerated and unduly self-congratulatory. It is written, as I suspect most of our stories are, to create the impression of having made some progress. Lots of furious effort trying to make sense and meaning of the world and of myself, but really nothing to show for it all. I lack the qualities of emotional intelligence and empathy needed to be a good lover or friend, and though my new loves seem willing to settle for consistency and generosity from me, I wouldn’t (and don’t) blame them for looking for something better in a relationship. I’ve had some interesting insights, ‘ahas’, but lack the capacity to express them articulately and practically in ways that can be of use to anyone. I have fancied myself ‘too far ahead’ of most others to be able to explain my ideas to them, but the truth is I’ve just been immensely fortunate to have had the time and resources to think about things, and for all that I’m not particularly good at doing so.
- What is Happening Now, and What Comes Next: This is the present-state positional and future-state aspirational story of self-awareness, deepening love, realizing (or making peace with) my sexual fantasies, and witnessing my ‘self’ (and its stories) falling away until what used to be ‘me’ is gone and all that remains is everything-that-is (and always was).
This story is the most preposterous of all, a pure fantasy. Like all future-state stories it is an invention, a dream. We can’t predict or control what our future will hold. It doesn’t follow from our past story, which in any case is also a fiction.
This isn’t meant to be self-pitying or false modesty. It’s just an honest realization that my life doesn’t add up to much, and isn’t ever likely to. I think everyone’s life story, the story that people (especially ‘leaders’ and celebrities) tell of what they’ve done and who they are, is absurdly self-aggrandizing, redacted, and mostly wishful thinking. What we think and what we say and what we do don’t really make any lasting difference, and I sense it’s hubris to believe otherwise.
My story, and I would guess everyone’s story, is ultimately utterly insignificant. A more modest Story of Me might be:
My whole life I have been bewildered, unable to really make sense of anything, just muddling my way through, and I have often been quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. I have put great effort into many things but have nothing much to show for it. I’ve had some interesting insights, but nothing that’s of much practical use to anyone. I have been generous, but only when I could easily afford to be. I’ve been very lucky. I have become more joyful and fun-loving, but more pessimistic, more curious, and more skeptical about everything, even whether we as separate ‘selves’ actually exist.
In other words, a life of mostly selfish, fruitless, directionless struggle. Sounds about right. Doesn’t seem to be a story that should be hard to let go of, does it? And yet even this more ‘modest’ Story of Me is just a story. It is just the mind’s desperate pattern-finding, meaning-making, a connecting of events and an association of this series of events with a person. Unreal.
Suppose I were to let go of it. Not as some kind of act of contrition, replacing it with a more ‘honest’ story. Suppose I were to let go of the Story of Me entirely.
What then, would I put in my bio? What would I offer as my history and credentials to potential project teammates or employers? What amusing personal tales would I tell to people I’d like to impress? What would I tell myself in deciding what I should do next?
Some non-dualists refuse to offer a bio at all, claiming that to do so would contradict their message that the separate self is an illusion. But that usually comes across as kind of a smokescreen for not having any credentials to back up their message. More often, they offer a somewhat apologetic bio for the separate self that they now realize and admit does not really exist. People want to know their ‘teaching’ credentials, and also want to hear the story of how they seemingly achieved that realization, even when they accept that there is no real path to it, that it just happens. They are not particularly interested in their messengers’ modest, ‘utterly insignificant’ story.
Why do we want to hear each other’s stories? Partly it seems it’s how we relate to people, to discover what commonalities our stories have. If I let go of the Story of Me, will no one want to relate to me anymore? Will I be unable, without this story, to relate to anyone? If I am speaking with people and assert or reply that I have no story because there is no ‘me’ and that I have no aspirations because time does not exist and that it’s pointless to care or worry about anything because there’s no free will and everything is already perfect, it’s likely to be a short, useless and unpleasant conversation (especially if I insist on putting every pronoun, and the subject and object of every sentence, in quotation marks).
It is not condescending or dishonest, I would say, to speak with people in a shared ‘dualistic’ language, even if you think some of its premises are suspect.
I was invited to write a proposal for a presentation this fall on the role of stories(!) and other techniques to elicit genuine change in people’s beliefs and behaviours. A credible bio would have been part of the proposal. It’s a subject that interests me greatly. I am torn about whether to try, but if I do both the bio and the presentation will be, almost certainly, inauthentic, full of the Story of Me. And if I don’t try, I will be troubled about whether in my obsession with non-duality I am disengaging from people and ideas that are at least fun, even if they are probably not really useful. What’s the harm in play, even if it’s a bit disingenuous?
Likewise I have recently met some people whose company I really enjoyed, and to engage with them I told the Story of Me in all its practiced and thickly-varnished glory, still half-believing it myself. In so doing I passed off things that I have come to tenuously believe (things such as Pollard’s Laws*) as things that I have learned, as truths, as personal wisdom. These people clearly liked my stories, and they liked my self-assurance in telling them. What if the next time I meet someone like that, someone I’m intuitively drawn to, I refuse to tell the fictitious Story of Me? What if I just take them on interesting walks, listen to their story, ask them questions, sidestep questions about myself and refuse to offer any credentials, any advice, any personal ‘wisdom’? What if I ‘depersonalized’ my beliefs, my truths, by reframing them as just interesting observations, removing them from the Story of Me?
Without the Story of Me, would I come across as mysterious and interesting, or as evasive, a suspiciously blank slate? Would people like the more authentic, more modest, less talkative not-‘me’ as much as they like the richly storied ‘me’, enough to forge enjoyable new relationships? And what about the people who already know ‘me’? Without the Story of Me, will they still know ‘me’? Will they find the story-less not-‘me’ as lovable? Will they fear that the more authentic not-‘me’ might no longer love them?
And ultimately, perhaps, without the Story of Me, what if anything will be left of ‘me’? Will what is left do anything differently, make different decisions? My sense is that the answer to all these questions is that nothing of consequence will appear to have changed, because beyond the story, the fiction, there never was anyone here to change to begin with.
Or at least that’s my story.
*Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.
Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.
I suppose people want to have a bio because of how the mind works with chunking and labeling things to remember them. I don’t imagine there would be much point in a conference in which people just walked around introducing themselves as “me” (I once said I was “me” to some such pinning down question, the person laughed repeated the question then didn’t speak to me anymore). It can be dangerous though, when people don’t have a story to explain you, they can make up the craziest ones for themselves. It can be amusing but you can be subject to serious suspicions. I think that is why they burned some witches back in the day.
I don’t quite agree that “everyone’s” story is insignificant, (Gandhi?) but the number of significant human lives is insignificant enough to support your assertion. I remember when Princess Diana died, it was so unbelievable, she was having this “story” and suddenly in the middle of it, she abruptly died without finishing it. Made no sense.
Perhaps we should use the word “template” to think of stories? The word story is getting overused. Happy Long Weekend.
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It’s all a story – including this bit ;-)
I reckon it’s more fun to let the trickster emerge, and just have fun with ‘what is’ – just engage, human to human, in a way that puts others at ease (or at least doesn’t unsettle them), and make sure you get a belly laugh every now and then. But that doesn’t mean adopting a false self or appearing to buy in to things that no longer make sense to you. It just means starting where people are at – and most people aren’t at where you’re at, regardless where you’re at ;-)
Perhaps speaking in verbs is more useful than our tendency to use nouns and adjectives? For example, instead of “I’m a counsellor, a writer, an environmental activist, a degrowther, and a hobbyist cook” (I don’t like saying that stuff anyways – comes off as grandiose when you list a bunch of stuff, but one or two things is far too narrow and limiting…), perhaps “Well, this week was pretty standard: I did a bit of counselling, procrastinated a lot on things I actually like doing, went for some slow, ambling walks, and ate some really great food – but who knows what next week will hold?!” Or something like that… :-P Anyhoo, the trickster in me enjoys playing around with ways of making folks think differently without it all being too alien to make sense to them.
We tell stories, and hear those of others, because we have an intrinsic need to belong. We can only figure out where and how we belong if we can establish context, and stories are necessary for that. People want to size you up and understand where you fit into their picture. So, perhaps all that matters is which bits of your story are relevant to the context you’re in at any given moment. If the rest is irrelevant, then just leave it out. Most of the time, what I do for a living, what my credentials are, or things like my background are really unimportant. I think most people I’m loosely acquainted with don’t know those things at all, but they do know I’m a big fan of Mother Nature and her Great Outdoors, and they get to know a lot about my cats, and the kind of dishes I bring to potluck parties :-P
I look at my stories up ’til now with a lot more humility than I used to. I recognize that they have shaped me to the extent that I wasn’t aware… and then once I started to become more aware of their influence, I became freer to move and change without commitment or constraint (although I admit moving from state to state and country to country helps a lot with that!). But I’m not throwing the old stories away – I’ve learned a lot from them, and am endlessly amazed by how much of my own emerging wisdom simply seems based on having lived a little, and grown up a little, not on anything special I’ve realised or achieved…
BTW, I’d write the bio as expected, and then use it as a prop – deconstruct it with your audience, and encourage them to deconstruct their own as well. And then hit ’em with the punchline: this is all part of the story too :-P
nice to read this
Isn’t this just about getting older and wiser :-) Thanks for a really good read which resonates on many levels.
I always enjoy your stuff. This one is partularly interesting as I am taking a coursera course on psychology and buddism. I’m only half way thfough, but the material on evolutionary psychology, and the notion of self fits right in to your concerns. See also “Why everyone ( else) is a hipocrite” by David kurzban.
One thing thing that might be interesting to think about is, what is useful, rather than what is true? This seems to the way that natural selection “thinks”
Here’s the course
My favorite theme of “your story” – is that you continually examine and doubt everything about it. That’s a person I can learn something from, and find common ground.
The problem isn’t with your story; it’s with your idea of what a story is. Stories are bigger on the inside than the outside, and they nest many levels deep. Our stories contain many stories, and those stories cooperate and complement and conflict. All of the stories you told in your post are part of your story, and many more besides. When we think of a person’s story, we understand it better if we think of stories like _A Thousand and One Nights_ or _The Iliad_ or _The Odyssey_ or the epic cycles of interacting folk tales. These are the stories we enjoyed and lived among before our idea of “story” got so dangerously simplified. Stories, today as well as in antiquity, can be and should be full of complex internal detail, just like we are.
Dave = a good friend
Thanks for the comments, everyone. I agree that stories can be very useful, even dangerously and subversively so. As with most things it’s dependent on people’s awareness that it is a story and how as a ‘metaphor’ for reality it maps onto (what we can most reliably perceive as) reality. The map that omits the elevation information or the fact that the road is full of giant potholes is like a bad story. The more detailed they are, at least to a point, the more useful they can be. But they are still stories, still just maps.
A comment I wrote in response to a personal email about this post that I thought readers might find interesting:
Instead of the non-dualists’ approach of calling the world/life of a ‘self’ a ‘dream’, what if you think of it more as a role-play, as a game. You’re born, and suddenly everyone is telling you relentlessly that it’s your job to play this role, and whenever you try to play any other role, or no role, you’re ignored as if you weren’t there. Eventually you just fall into the habit of playing that role, until you eventually forget that you’re playing it, you forget that there’s something before the role. It’s not you, exactly, because the role has usurped you (and our language conspired to make this usurping invisible). Non-dualists would have us believe it’s just ‘consciousness’, or ‘presence’ or ‘spacious awareness’ or ‘all there is’. So non-dualists huddle together getting some comfort from the feeling that there sense that ‘something isn’t quite right’ is at least shared by people playing other roles, even though it may be impossible for them to actually give up the role, because their ‘selves’ believe they are nothing without it.